Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reading generously

I like to complain about modern movies being too long. Ninety minutes is enough, most of the time, and three hours is usually just unnecessary. I also like to complain about books being too long. A little while ago, I finished reading a pleasant novella by Connie Willis called Uncharted Territory [1994], and I was all geared up to write a post about how that (17,500 to 40,000 words) really is the perfect length for science fiction.

And yet here I am reading Anathem [2008] by Neal Stephenson -- all 932 pages of it, plus glossary and appendices -- and having a great time. In part, precisely because it is so long.

I'm sure some of my willingness to give it a shot is down to trusting that Neal Stephenson will take me places I want to go. But part of it is that I consciously decided that I felt like immersing myself in a massive book. It probably doesn't need to be as long as it is, but before I even started reading I'd decided to consider its length a feature, rather than a bug.

I think sometimes it's worth reminding myself that there's an element of choice in the way that I read anything. As a deliberately extreme example, I can choose to read Dan Brown the way I read Cormac McCarthy, but I'm inevitably going to be disappointed. Or I can go in to that hypothetical Dan Brown novel completely aware of what it is, and what it is trying to be, and hopefully have some fun.

Perhaps that sounds like making excuses for bad writing. I don't think that's what I'm trying to say, though. I think I'm suggesting that I can accept averageness in one or more aspects of a novel, provided there are others that hold my interest. That may mean I'm a less discerning reader than I could be, but I hope it also means that I have fewer outright bad reading experiences than I might otherwise.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Genre accessibility rears its head again

I've recently started watching the TV show Community. It's great. You should watch it too. Not so long ago, though, it appeared to be in danger of cancellation.  A friend pointed out this article in The Atlantic Wire, which discussed a few of the reasons the show might have found itself in this position. The first item on their list was that it is so tightly wound around itself and its geeky subculture that it is difficult for a new viewer to penetrate. "No welcome mat," they said.

That's probably a fair comment. But the clever knottiness is what makes the show so great. If you take that away, you're not going to be left with the same show. So what's the right thing to do? Stick with the vision and risk cancellation, or try to make it more approachable and risk losing the thing that makes it so great?

My answer? Stick with it. If Community gets cancelled, at least it will have been great -- and its own thing -- to the end.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. That's basically the same criticism that is often levelled at science fiction (frequently by insiders): that it has become so deeply wrapped up in itself that it is essentially inaccessible to the new reader. I've mentioned before that this sometimes worries me.

Thinking about Community has got me looking at the problem slightly differently, though. Of course I want science fiction literature to thrive, and I'd love it if everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. But, to take an example, The Quantum Thief just wouldn't be the same book if Hannu Rajaniemi had attempted to make it approachable for everyone, regardless of their familiarity with the genre. And that, I think, would have been a shame.

I'm certainly not suggesting that science fiction authors should give up on trying to engage with the outside, and just turn inward. Engagement is obviously necessary to keep the genre lively, and hopefully at least a little relevant. And, yes, perhaps it's also necessary to provide a new generation of readers with the background they need to really enjoy books like The Quantum Thief (although I'm uncomfortable with with slightly elitist tone in that last sentence). I think all I'm saying is that lack of accessibility to a wide audience is not necessarily a flaw.

Still, it does make me sad that I won't ever be able to share The Quantum Thief (and books like it) with the vast majority of my friends.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Backstory, and Vast by Linda Nagata

Hi! Long time, no post. I'm sorry about that. I'll try not to let it happen again. Let me get back in the swing of things with something long, rambling, and lacking in concrete conclusions, eh?

I just finished reading Vast [1998] by Linda Nagata. It's the fourth book in a series called The Nanotech Succession. It's also the first book in the series that I've read. I chose to start with that book for three reasons*. The most relevant is that I was interested to see what it was like reading a sequel without any knowledge of its forerunners.

I should say that Vast isn't a sequel in the strictest sense, since it is intended to stand on its own. Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure that it shares at least one major character with earlier novels in the series, and that it heavily references events and places from them.

Nagata has done a wonderful job -- I really enjoyed the book. I never felt lost or confused, and I was always clear on the characters' motivations. The science fictional ideas that underpin the book were introduced naturally. There's a lot of looking backwards, but I think that's a deliberate choice, not an unintended consequence of being the fourth book in a series.

All the same, I never quite managed to shake the feeling that events in Vast would have had more impact if I'd read the earlier books in the series. That got me thinking about worldbuilding. A while ago I read a quote by M. John Harrison (via China Mieville and Warren Ellis), in which he laid into the whole endeavour. You can read the whole (short) thing here, but I'm going to repeat part of it:
"Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done."
I love complex, rich worldbuilding -- it's part of the reason that I'm such a fan of Ian McDonald, China Mieville and Neal Stephenson**. But I wonder if the act of trying to write it all down and codify everything somehow deadens it a little. Could that perhaps be what I was picking up in Vast

I think I believe that worldbuilding and backstory should exist solely to serve the present narrative, but how can they do that with complete freedom if they're already set in stone? Is some quality of Vast smoothed over by the existence of the earlier books in the series? I have no idea. Probably I'm just imagining that there's something there (or not there) because I know those other books exist.

But still, it does make me want to experiment. Build a world, and then write stories in it. Write stories in a world I haven't built yet. See if they feel different.

* The second reason was that Vast is the book set farthest in the future, and I particularly like far future SF. The third reason is that Alastair Reynolds spoke highly of it, mentioning specifically that it stood on its own merits. Call it a best case for my experiment.

** Maybe what I love about the worlds those authors build is that there's so much in them that I don't understand, or that isn't fully, laboriously, explained? Maybe that's also why epic fantasy isn't really my favourite thing?