Committed? Speculative Fiction’s Longest Series

We took a look at some of the most celebrated fantasy and sci-fi series in contemporary speculative fiction. Seeing the results made us feel a bit better about our sometimes soul-torturing decisions on what series to leave off our bucket list.

This isn’t a definitive list, just a conversation starter. We sourced it from a 2017 blog post at Adam Whitehead’s blog The Wertzone, so it may be a bit dated. But don’t worry, “A Song of Ice and Fire” (aka Game of Thrones) won’t be changing anytime soon…

Let the debate begin over what was left off and let the celebration begin on getting one step closer to deciding which series are worth the commitment!

– Josh

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What Do Our Choices in Thrillers Say About Us? Goodreads’ Mystery & Thriller Week

Goodreads just listed their top 100 Mysteries & Thrillers based on popularity as of this month. What that translates into basically is how many people clicked a star rating for a particular book. The more ratings, the more popular the book. Not too scientific, but it gives readers a baseline comparison in the genre (unless some ratings are spammed…).

While getting the crowd’s opinion for gauging pop culture taste is a tried-and-true tradition, it bears examining fan faves here a little bit more closely.

I present an only *slightly* deeper look at popularity on Goodreads using number of reviews (rather than ratings) and avg. rating for a book. I think it’s a much better gauge of quality of a book (whether you love it or hate it) to give it a review. It’s hard to fake reading a book when there’s a review with it, but some fake reviews likely still exist.

So what do these picks say about our taste in thriller fiction? I’ll let you decide.

Goodreads’ full list can be found here.

– Josh

 

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The Perfect Story Collection? ‘Exhalation’ Astounds with its Look Into the Human Soul

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Click image for interactive version. Most stories are less than an hour, and it’s time well spent for seekers of not just great, but essential speculative fiction.

 

Exhalation isn’t just a collection of short stories, it’s an experience that you will revisit over and over in your mind. I’m still processing the issues it raises about technology, society, and our collective and individual free will. It’s hard to put into words how profound the ideas, and the execution of those ideas, are.

Again, it’s an experience.

Story collections can sometimes be hit or miss and they are only as strong as their weakest link. There are none here. Ted Chiang wrote the stories in this collection, his second, over the course of almost a decade and a half (2005-2019). They all feel timeless, distinct, and something that is experienced at a personal level.

I’ll argue that these stories do what the best sci-fi should do, and then some. Science fiction allows people to potentially be more open or exposed to ideas that they otherwise wouldn’t be. Exhalation checks that block and then does something even more rare – it gets you thinking about changing your behavior, about being a better citizen of the world, and by doing so, moving the needle in the right direction.

Happy Reading!

Josh

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Recreation of the book cover. Click image to interact.

A Compelling City on Water Filled with Staggering Human Misery

Splendidly spoiler free review.

Blackfish City is an extraordinary piece of fiction. Sam J. Miller is able to build a world, immerse readers in it, and make them marvel at its strangeness and decaying grandeur. The mysteries that surround the water city of Qaanaaq — its history, technological wonders, and status as the envy of the Sunken World nations — set a riveting stage for the book’s cast of deeply scarred and fascinating characters. The narrative itself is expertly paced and written, giving each character a depth that makes you almost feel their anguish and understand the desperation of their lives in Qaanaaq.

The social and political subtext that is a hallmark of every great piece of speculative fiction is abundant in Blackfish City and often made me think of contemporary parallels without ever beating me over the head with an agenda. It opened my eyes to broader perspectives about different lifestyles, the fallibility of human systems, and the absolute corruption of the soul when survival becomes the only goal.

This book tries to deliver the entire package in a single tale – authentic world, fully-realized characters, compelling narrative, social commentary, unique fantastical elements – and I think in large part it succeeds. I appreciate immensely an author being able to bring a story to life within a single novel and deliver on all these elements. It’s a testament to being able to enthrall readers and give them a story that stays with them, moves them in some way, and becomes a meaningful part of their love of the genre without them having to commit to a ten-book series. *cough* Game of Thrones *cough*

Qaanaaq is a scary place, and it echos the dead nations that preceded it in many insidious ways that aren’t immediately apparent. The squalor and social divides are all the proof that’s needed that the computer programs that run the city are no better than their human programmers. It was absolutely chilling to think that the most ruthless of the old world could rule the new one and use anonymity and hide behind the so-called benevolent computer programs to keep a stranglehold on what was left of the world’s wealth.

Qaanaaq is seen as a successful model forward as the world floods or burns, but those who make it to the floating city find only temporary relief. There is barely enough space for the population, many residents crammed in closet- and box-sized living spaces. A deadly disease the breaks, is sweeping the population and a phantom of the old world, bent on vengeance for the genocide of her people, has arrived.

My favorite parts? Slight spoilers start now…

I was a big fan of Ankit and Kaev. They are both tragic characters, but survivors. Miller isn’t afraid to shatter his characters and it was devastating to see how short lived some of their happiness was. Joy has been in short supply their whole lives and I had a hard time when I realized that part of their tale would not end well.

There is so much sorrow in this book, and Ora and Masaaraq represent the core of this. Their story is arguably the center of the narrative, and they are determined to persevere no matter what. They are symbolic of an older generation under siege but with the strength to help those who come after them. They could represent the philosophy of yin and yang, one fiercely loyal to blood family, the other committed to the human race achieving more harmony.

To get a quick take on all of the book’s main characters, check out my data visualization. It shows the order characters were introduced in the book and a ranking of my favorites. For those who want spoilers, hover on the dots to see some of my analysis of each character. DON’T hover on the dots if you don’t want want spoilers!

4 out of 5 stars (I wish the third act hadn’t been so rushed.)

Happy Reading,

Josh

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Black Mirror for the Book Crowd

I’m speechless, and a little unnerved. None of these stories seem far fetched and a few might even be plausible in our lifetimes. Some of the best voices in speculative fiction bring their A games to the Forward Collection (free in Amazon Prime Reading).

Read (or listen for free) in any order and prepare to encounter some weighty issues. For fans of plants, AI, humanity, free will, cloning, and quantum computing:)

The image shows my own reading order and ranking for the collection. Click on the picture to explore and find some easter eggs in the data graphic.

Happy Reading! – Josh

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Classic Stories Reimagined

The cynical side of me could say, “Look, people are cashing in on stories in the public domain.” Or I could give some of these a shot and see if they’re worth a read. But please don’t let these be in the vein of the Cinder series. (Sorry, those were just too superficial for me.)

Check out these reworked classics and read more at https://www.tor.com/2020/02/05/23-retellings-of-classic-stories-from-science-fiction-fantasy-authors/

 

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Mexican Gothic Literature? Count Me In

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Data visualization (left) of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work inspired by the cover of her latest novel (right). Click on image to explore books.

I have not read one word of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s written fiction beyond her book titles, so no bogus reviews or recommendations from me.

But I can make an introduction.

I learned of Moreno-Garcia from reading Andrea Gomez’s compelling and thoughtful piece on Tor.com that teased just enough details about the author’s books to make me do some homework. As a fan of speculative fiction I got excited about the author and read more about her background and the scope of her work.

I created a data visualization of the author’s work – inspired by the book cover of her latest novel – in order to figure out where to start reading. I hope the interactive data graphic gives others exposure to this author and lets them try out new genre reads.

One thing that is a little discouraging is that Goodreads had some of the author’s shorter works linked to Amazon that led to a broken web page. If the written fiction of women and minorities are to be discovered and their fanbases are to grow, issues like these need to be addressed. My library didn’t even have any ebook holdings I could borrow, but good ol’ physical copies are waiting for me at my branch.

Click on the image at the top to interact and happy reading!

Josh

Good Books for National Science Fiction Day

Goodreads Choice Awards 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards 2018 Book Picker Image Map

Today is National Science Fiction Day, so get your geek on and explore some of the most popular science fiction reads of the past few years. Click in the above image to visit one of the data visualizations to explore.

Then, as a 2020 New Year’s resolution, put one of the most important and brilliant sagas of the past half century on your reading list: Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Don’t shrug it off. This book will change the way you think about epic sagas. Happy Reading!

Goodreads Choice Awards 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards 2018 Book Picker Image Map

 

RPGs are Giants in the World of Video Games – We Analyze the Power Players

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If you like your video game stories, then read on! I just got back from a conference that inspired me to make a data graphic with some of the most celebrated video game RPGs in the modern era. – Josh

Tableau is incredibly robust and my experience at TC17 in Las Vegas showed me just how much so. My visualizations has always focused on designing for the interactive experience, and with the #data17 knowledge I acquired, I was able to merge many ideas into a more fully realized data-driven experience with my work.

There’s a data set that I picked up in the spring and worked on but then abandoned because I didn’t feel like the story I was building did justice to the subject I was passionate about: role-playing video games.

Role-playing games (RPGs) stand as giants in the world of video games. The level of immersion when playing these games is remarkable and your connection to the characters and story is much more palpable because in a sense the player controls his or her own destiny in the game.

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In my Tableau work, I wanted to convey some of the impact and meaning behind these creations and help people more fully appreciate and explore video games as vehicles for art.

I was inspired by the amazing viz work of Jonni Walker to attempt this approach. He arguably sets the bar for beautiful data stories in Tableau and stretches the limits of the software’s capabilities.

There were some tradeoffs I had to make so that the dashboard retained its interactivity and the images could still play a key role in pulling the audience through the story. This was a remarkable experience building on my background in photography and writing in order to create a data-driven story.

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Here are some quick tips I learned:

  • Photo selection: Fortunately I could use the data set itself to leverage striking images of the game art. I picked images that lent an editorial message to the elements or integrated into the design of the dashboard. (I had a good conversation with Michael Mixon and we commiserated on how long it takes to find the perfect image!) Also, this viz is a type of commentary and the artwork falls under fair use.
  • Photo editing: Learn Photoshop or a similar program that offers image masking. Tableau doesn’t offer transparent backgrounds for its charts, so I had to make design decisions that ensured optimal use of interactivity and images. This was a big pain point in Tableau and took probably 3x longer than building out the charts.
  • Calculated Fields (including LODs): This is an acknowledgement that your work will go much faster and you’ll be able to approach these type of data-driven stories if you learn how to present your data using calculated fields.
  • 3000 pixels tall!: Everything floated and it was beautiful. Just keep track of all your assets on the dashboard. I did this visually since the Item Hierarchy pane still isn’t that intuitive to me.
  • Pay it forward: I was tempted, right up until this writing, not to share the downloadable file. But I have learned so much from the Tableau Public community and would not be where I am without its members and their generosity (there are so many, I can’t name them all!). I think there’s a social contract of sorts, not necessarily in always making your work available, but in making a real effort to share knowledge and elevate the whole community.

I hope you enjoy. Happy vizzing!