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?

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