Pre-Awareness and Reading

For those looking for something to read, I recommend the July 10 & 17 2023 issue of The New Yorker (the one with Patience, or possibly Fortitude, reading over the young lady’s shoulder, on the cover).  Not only does it include an excellent profile of Chip Delany (“Galaxy Brain: Samuel R. Delany’s pioneering science fiction,” Julian Lucas), it also includes a fascinating discussion of the upcoming Barbie movie (“Toy Story: Mattel’s movie ambitions go beyond Barbie,” Alex Barasch).

From the Barbie article, I learned the word “pre-awareness,” which is said to be the ruling aesthetic governing entertainment in this, our brave new world.  The core of this philosophy is that people will not spend their time or, more importantly of course, their money on a Totally New Story.  They want stories told about things of which they are already aware.  Barbie, for instance, or Wolverine; this is also why we see endless remakes of old films.

Yes, there is a certain irony that this discussion would be happening in the same issue featuring Chip Delany and his work.

Anyway, as a writer, this concept of “pre-awareness” concerns me, as it also explains a few things Steve and I, as authors of a body of work set in a fictional universe, have run into with potential readers.

Potential readers are immediately worried that they have to commit to 24 books in order to read, say, the 25th.  No amount of Auctorial Reassurance can convince them that they don’t have to start with Book One — which is terrifying to them.  Who has the time? (I sympathize; I haven’t had the time to re-read the entirety of our back-list in — ever.)  There also seems to me to be a sense that potential readers are worried they’ll . . . get it wrong, if they haven’t done all the homework.

This timidity is bolstered by long-time readers, who greet each new book with really gratifying enthusiasm, and then say, “But new readers need to start at the beginning.”  This kind of ignores the fact that, in 1988, when the Very First Liaden novel, Agent of Change, hit the stands, nobody knew who Miri and Val Con were — there was no pre-awareness.  Six months later, when the second Liaden novel, Conflict of Honors, was published, nobody knew who Priscilla and Shan were.  And yet, the stories (apparently) made sense and left readers with a need to know more.

You see this in other spheres, as well, where newcomers to the science fiction genre are told by old hands that they have to start with the classics, going back, now, seventy years, and I gotta tell you, as someone who read the classics when they were new?  Some of them are “classic” only in the sense that they’re old.  Really, a newcomer to the genre can do what I did when I was first reading SF — pick a book, any book.  Read it.  Do it again.  Again.  By this process, a reader can  establish a baseline of Stuff I Like, the same way you arrive at your favorite flavor of ice cream.

Now, yes, I’m skating on thin ice here, as an author working in a long-established universe.  After all, one of the reasons that readers invest in “series” entertainments is because they “know” the characters, the setting, the arc.  But that doesn’t mean that all newcomers need to do the homework. Or, indeed, that there is homework.

Here’s a secret:  Stories explain themselves as they unfold.  That’s how they work. If the authors are doing their job, a new reader ought to be able to open any Liaden book (for instance) and come away with a perfectly intelligible story.  They may, after reading, want to know more — that, as far as we’re concerned, is a Feature, not a Bug — and there’s plenty more for them to dig into, if that’s the case.  Or they may decide not to go on, and that’s perfectly valid, too.

But the point is, you can’t get it wrong, there’s no report card, no one will laugh at you (well, OK, I’ll laugh at you, if you write to tell me that I’m “ripping off” an idea that you read in a book published 20 years after our book, but I’m old, and make my own fun).

Readers can, in a word, suit themselves.  It’s their life, and indeed, pleasure reading isn’t meant to be work — it’s meant to be fun.  To be an escape from work.  Escapism.  It’s what we write.  We’re not ashamed to own that, and we think we’re pretty good at it.

So, anyhow, those are my thoughts on pre-awareness, for what they’re worth.  And now it’s time for me to go to work on Ribbon Dance, a new book set in the Liaden Universe®.



7 thoughts on “Pre-Awareness and Reading”

  1. As you point out, we get plenty of pre-awareness when we re-read, or when we read a new book in a series we’ve enjoyed. That said, I enjoyed Conflict of Honors and Agent of Change when I first read them too (around the time Plan B was in the works, so I could then eagerly await Plan B and I Dare). But CofH and AofC were recommended by a friend, which gave me a certain pre-awareness that I would not be wasting my time. I tend not to read SF/fantasy that someone I trust has not recommended. I suppose I am a bit timid that way, but there is a lot of junk out there.

  2. Certainly, I take book recommendations from people whose taste I know. But that’s not quite the same as pre-awareness. The notion that you have to Know Everything about a character before you can read a story about them (obviating, perhaps, the need for said story) is closer to what the Barbie article (if you haven’t read it) intends.

  3. What I remember most about the first three “Constellations” is how many holes in my knowledge they filled in at that stage of my reading the series (maybe six books by then? Don’t recall). I got a whole of pleasure reading those novels without knowing all those backstories first. Also, had I read them first I’m not sure I’d have appreciated them as much as I did, knowing where those characters had gotten to since the time of their actions in those stories.

    OTOH, the joy of finding a series with a lengthy backlist can’t be overstated.

  4. You are the absolute master of explaining-without-explaining, of polishing and twining so that the story carries us forward joyfully confident that we know *enough.*

    I’ve been thinking over your writing about this “pre-awareness” concept all day, and I suddenly think I understand: pre-awareness is for the NON-masters.

    A truly brilliant story, well-told, will appeal no matter how original and unfamiliar it all is. A merely okay story is more likely to be widely accepted, and forgiven its predictability and/or other shortcomings, when it’s going down some well-liked path with “no weirdness.”

    I read a thing once that claimed something like people’s relationships (love/enjoy it vs hate/fear it) with Novelty (newness, change, learning, speculation) could predict their politics and other tastes along lines that perfectly parallel their willingness to rearrange their living room.

    I wonder if maybe there are a lot of decision-makers in the, ah, storytelling fields, who know they NEED a new thing, but are so afraid a new thing will bite them that they invariably bat it away when it gets too close. Then demand it’s theirs-give-it-back the instant someone else picks it up and loves it.

  5. I agree that all your books can be read as standalone books but what joy in the front of the book to discover there are plenty more where that came from. I too have enjoyed the back stories in the Constellation series but find I have to go back and look at previous works to catch up, not because the story isn’t complete but because I remember sort of the character from before and want a refresher. My first introduction to the Liand Universe was Fledgling so didn’t start at the beginning but have enjoyed all the books. I am just so pleased you keep writing. Some of my favorite authors are retiring or passing on (AnneMcCaffrey, Andre Norton)

  6. This is a great post. I’ve given it some though myself when thinking about what book to recommend to a new reader. I thin the Liaden Universe does a much, much better job of leaving multiple points of entry than most other SciFi series. Even if you revere the “classics”, would you suggest that someone start off reading Second Foundation ? Whereas you can choose to come in at the beginning (from a publication date perspective) with Val Con and Miri (as I did), the beginning in terms of time in-universe, or with Theo or Jethri, or with short stories, and probably other places I’m not thinking of off-hand. So kudos for crafting such a welcoming series of books!

  7. When I’m turning a newbie on to the Liaden universe, I recommend they start with Agent of Change to meet Miri and Val Con. It also gives them an intro to the Liaden universe, and how it works. I usually also recommend Conflict of Honors as a second read. After that I tell them they can go for any of the books as a standalone read.

    In my case, I started with AofC in 1988, followed by CofH the same year. I then read each book as it was published, including the Meisha Merlin-published books. Until about 2012, I bought the books in HB, but then began to collect them as ebooks via B&N. I’m now starting the ebook collection again. Luckily, they’re only $7 each. But it’ll take awhile, as money is tight on Social (in) Security.

    Thank you two for 35 years of reading (and re-reading pleasure.

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