Recent Reading, Unfinished and Ambivalent

I’ve read a lot of books in recent months that I didn’t finish, or felt ambivalent about. I have notes on a few of them.

Will Elliott, The Pilgrims

This is a portal fantasy with a pair of protagonists. The first protagonist is a loser. He finds a door–a literal door–to another world, and it’s the greatest thing to happen to him in, like, ever; he fully expects that in this new world he’ll be a hero. Rather uniquely, the novel realizes he’s an idiot. He does end up touched by Mysterious Powers but his homeless friend, protagonist number two, is the one who’ll probably have something closer to a traditional hero role. This novel is trying to deconstruct stories about schlubs who travel to another world and discover their inner strength. I have a soft spot for this genre, but I still enthusiastically agree it needs deconstruction.

Unfortunately The Pilgrims never arrives where it’s going because it’s the first volume in another damn trilogy that ends on another damn cliffhanger. As usual for the first and second books of trilogies, it feels like mostly padding.

Actually, the padding is interesting to think about, if not to read. I’ve noticed some epic fantasies set lots of action in what you might call “Adventure Land.” Vague fields, forests, or mountains where nothing happens apart from bands of adventurers travelling through having what Dungeons and Dragons calls “encounters.” There’s no evidence that Adventure Land belongs to anyone, or is used for anything, unless it’s been set aside as a park. If so, fantasyland has a very extensive national park system; Teddy Roosevelt would be proud. There might be roads in Adventure Land but these novels rarely mention farms. (Civilizations need agriculture; I’d expect most cities to be surrounded by farms.) There might be a ruin, if the novel is especially D&D-ish. Usually the only inhabitants of Adventure Land are monsters. Or bandits. Or inexplicably self-sufficient cottages which if the protagonist is lucky are owned by helpful allies, and if unlucky by Tom Bombadil.

A lot of The Pilgrims takes place in Adventure Land. It’s specifically mentioned that farming is taking place under a dome. Beyond that, there’s a city, and a castle, and the rest of the land is… I dunno. I’ve got to admit, by the midpoint of the novel I was picturing the characters tramping across a giant lawn.

Graydon Saunders, The March North

Saunders writes SF like John M. Ford did: leaning heavily on incluing for explanations, feeding you only just enough context to deduce the world, the backstory, and the underlying meaning of what’s happening. I find that Ford stays just on the right side of gnomic. For me, Saunders crossed the line into obtuse. This may be partly because The March North is military fantasy, which is not usually my thing. There’s a lot of military jargon and maneuvering and it’s hard to tell how much is relevant, or in what way. The characters spend long passages exchanging technobabble about magic artillery. On the positive side of the ledger, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. On the negative side, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. It’s not particularly interesting, and it’s never clear why it’s relevant.

The characters are mostly ciphers; salient facts about the narrator’s identity and background aren’t made clear for a while, and the soldiers might as well be a formless mass labeled “soldiers.” When a good chunk of them die it’s about as affecting as seeing barrels get smashed in a video game.

There’s a second book set in the same world that doesn’t share the same setup or characters as this one. It might have been better if I’d read that first; maybe I’ll try it someday.

Marta Randall, Journey

Marta Randall’s prose is good so at first this seemed promising. I soon discovered this is a book where it’s considered acceptable for a guy to own an entire inhabited planet and treat the natives as servants. I checked some of the later chapters and didn’t see any suggestion that at any point the novel questioned this. 1978 seems late for something like this to be published.

There’s also some lack of acknowledgement of how big planets are. Like, 200 refugees come to this planet owned by a single family, and the wife wants to make it clear the refugees don’t own the land they’re living on. Because—setting aside the natives, which is, let us admit, a pretty massive thing to set aside—an entire planet inhabited by 200 people is facing a serious land shortage, right?

A. L. Kennedy, the Drosten’s Curse

The Drosten’s Curse is a Doctor Who tie-in starring the fourth Doctor. It’s an expansion of one of the Time Trips novella ebooks the BBC published a couple years ago.

At first the prose style seemed a little strange. The Drosten’s Curse uses a lot of ellipses and run-on sentences. But it felt right, somehow. Eventually it hit me: the prose is a pretty accurate replica of the way Tom Baker talked when he played the Doctor. The narrative voice of The Drosten’s Curse is the fourth Doctor as a Douglas Adames-esque third person omniscient narrator. That’s a smart choice, and appropriate: the novel takes the same whimsical tone as that one year during Tom Baker’s tenure that Adams worked on the program.

Unfortunately, after a while the novel starts to drag. There’s just too much happening, and too much of it feels random. And it may be that the fourth Doctor’s voice only works as prose in smaller doses.

Sofia Samatar, The Winged Histories

Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories is the book for anyone who’s interested in epic fantasy but put off by series that seem approximately the size of Borges’s Library of Babel. It’s got revolutions and religious wars and political scheming and cursed monsters and a warrior woman riding a giant bird, all in one volume.

(It’s set in the same world as her earlier A Stranger in Olondria. But you don’t have to have read that book to read this one. But you should!)

Cover of The Winged Histories

Olondria is in a bit of a state. Kestenya, one of the provinces, is rebelling. Believers in Olondria’s old religion are fighting the new official religion that tried to suppress them. The Winged Histories views Oldondria’s civil war through four narrators–Tavis, who flees her shabby-genteel family to become a soldier, Tialon, the daughter of the Priest of the Stone, Seren, Tavis’s nomadic lover, and Siski, Tavis’s more conventional sister. All four are given individual voices and storytelling styles and points of view. The writing is, as in Samatar’s earlier novel, beautiful; it doesn’t just tell us what her characters feel, it conveys what feeling those things feels like to them.

For me, The Winged Histories is likely to be the best fantasy novel of the year. The problem with reviewing a novel that good after a first reading is that it can be hard to explain what made it so good. It’s easier to step back and analyze the books I’m less caught up in. I’m reduced to waving at it and saying “look at that,” and I’m not sure what to wave at first. Although doesn’t it say something that there are multiple waving-targets to choose from? So many fantasy novels just tell a story and leave it at that; once you’ve closed the last volume there’s no reason to think about it again. The Winged Histories is full of ideas.

Maybe history? Because this is a book about history. I will acknowledge that in some fantasy novels historical exposition can be a bad sign. The Winged Histories isn’t that kind of book. The problems with fantasy history come up when novels infodump a load of ancient creation myths explaining where the generic Evil Forces came from and what Mighty Plot Coupon the hero needs to make them go away. The Winged Histories is about history, and brief passages from Olondria’s official history actually appear in the novel, but it’s the kind of history people feel things about. The Winged Histories is about history that affects its characters’ lives and material realities. It matters to Tavis and Siski that Kestenya, their home, is part of Olondria, and that once it wasn’t. It makes a difference in their lives that their family has ties to Olondria’s rulers–their cousin Dasya is an heir to the throne–that, correctly exploited, could make their family important again.

Tavis is not, at first, concerned with history. She joins the army just because she wants to be a soldier. We get her limited view of the border skirmishes that keep the army busy on the edge of Kestenya. Who is she fighting, and why? She’s not totally sure. She starts to think maybe it’s not good that she’s not sure. Maybe, if she’s going to risk her life, she should risk it for Kestenya. The history of Olondria is placed between the narrators’ sections, so we don’t get exposition until we’ve gotten to know Tavis, and she’s started caring about history, and so by that point we care about Olondria’s history, too.

The historical sections are titled “From Our Common History.” There’s an understanding here–often elided in fantasy–that history is told from a certain point of view, that histories choose certain facts to present, leaving others out. Even objective, honest histories–there’s a lot of information out there, too much for any one history to hold. That’s why there’s always room for new histories of events we’ve studied for centuries: there’s always more to tell.

Tavis, Seren, and Siski are family. Tialon seems the odd one out in this novel; she doesn’t personally know any of them, though she meets Dasya and she also has a connection to A Stranger in Olondria, having appeared in that book. Tialon has spent her life in a tower with her father, the Priest of the Stone. The Stone is literally a big rock, covered in criss-crossing carvings, that serves as his holy book. Tialon is an insider and an outsider: she’s watching a family she has no connection to from a center of power she’s never had the chance to leave.

The Stone, it turns out, has a lot more writing on it than the Priest wanted translated. A lot of people wrote a lot of different lines on this rock. Some of it sounds religious, some more mundane. The Priest calls the extra lines “Orphans” after a line he found on the Stone cursing “these orphans darkening my path.” He’s decided they’re just graffiti some punks scraped into his holy artifact although, as one scholar points out, some of the mundane lines might sound profound when taken metaphorically. The thing is, it’s entirely up to the Priest which lines are the voice of his god and which are Orphans. The Stone is a grab bag from which the Priest picked the lines that told the story he wanted to tell. Yet in his mind he isn’t that story’s author: it came from the Stone.

But by picking out the lines he wants and suppressing the others, he’s not getting the complete story. The texts on the stone are woven into and written through each other, all part of the same artifact. Tialon realizes that people, too, are “written into each other.” She doesn’t know Tavis, Siski, or Seren, but their choices affect her life, and, whether they ever realize it or not, choices Tialon makes affect theirs. Lives coexist and cross over; people are context for each other. Even people who don’t know or think anything about each other (that “orphans” line was, after all, probably referring to actual orphans).

Historical infodumps tend not to work in generic epic fantasy, but that isn’t because fantasy history is an inherently bad idea–it’s that less accomplished fantasies don’t understand history as The Winged Histories does. History isn’t important because it’s full of mysteriously accurate prophecies, or because it contains instructions for defeating the Sauron of the Month. It’s important because it’s the context for people’s lives.

Conclusions and Caveats

This is the final post in a series on a style of genre prose that I dislike; I wanted to analyze why I dislike it, and it turned out quite long. It will make more sense if you’ve read the earlier posts, which I’ve just linked to and are all under the tag “Novelization Style.”


I started thinking of this style as “Novelization Style” after I realized that reading it felt like reading a novelization of a nonexistent Hollywood movie.

I’ve covered several reasons along the way. Novelization Style combines strict, unvaried close third person point of view with transparent prose. It feels like an attempt to render in prose the feeling of a scene filmed by a camera, creating an illusion of objectivity. The result is a standardized generic narrative voice, and what feels like a denial that the story is being narrated at all. Novelization Style is mostly paced moment-to-moment, again like a scene playing out on video; in some books section breaks echo the way a movie or TV show cuts between scenes. Novelization Style prioritizes action over interiority. Descriptions are brief and concrete instead of evocative; dialogue is plot-relevant; function trumps form. When it comes to plotting, bigger is better; generally at some point we learn about a conspiracy or pending disaster that will cost lives. Raising the stakes means making the threat bigger, not the emotional arc more intense or the intellectual and philosophical questions more urgent. Novelization Style sometimes uses recognizable Hollywood storytelling patterns, like the prologues and wrap-ups I described in the last post, or an apparent divide between “speaking roles” and “extras.”

I like early 20th century mystery novels, so I’ve read a lot of popular fiction from that era. This style seems new to me. Not entirely new, mind you; action-oriented fiction has always been around, and Novelization Style is probably descended from pulp. But it’s just different enough to be its own thing. I’m about to make an anecdotal assertion here, so it should be taken with skepticism, but when I read 20th century novels I less often notice a strict adherence to the close third point of view–they’re more likely to vary the distance, use omniscient, or acknowledge the narrator. The narrative voices are more willing to be lively or playful. And I notice fewer storytelling strategies that parallel film. Again, this is just my impression, but it seems to me that Novelization Style started growing in the Hollywood blockbuster era, and became dominant enough to notice in this century.

Time for the caveats. I don’t want to imply that everything that could be called “Novelization Style” is bad. I’ve illustrated some of my examples with Three Parts Dead, and, like I said, despite some quibbles I’d say it’s good. I can enjoy an actual full-on example of Novelization Style if it pushes enough of my buttons. (I mentioned before that for over a decade I was reading one or two Doctor Who novels a month; almost all were Novelization Style.)

My problem with Novelization Style is that I’ve read so much of it, to the point that I’ve begun to feel like it dominates the science fiction and fantasy genres. Even writing I wouldn’t classify as Novelization Style sometimes borrows a few characteristics from it–a focus on action, a certain kind of pacing, or a slightly too generic narrative voice. Novelization Style naturally gravitates to a standardized narrative voice. When there’s a lot of it around, a lot of the SF genre starts to look samey.

Given the ties between Novelization Style and pulp, I also want to say that “Novelization Style” shouldn’t be taken as a perjorative term for “not Literary.” (In fact, I find the whole literary/non-literary divide dodgy. As anyone who’s seen the stately Library of America editions of Philip K. Dick’s brightly colored paperback novels knows, there’s no clear line between the two.) I don’t want to imply that I don’t like adventure in my fiction, or that I don’t like light, fun novels. I’m prone to depression, and always looking for light, fun reads for the times when that’s what I can handle.

The problem is that my definition of a fun read includes a lively, individual voice that doesn’t sound like every other book on the shelf, and some ideas for my brain to engage with. Earlier I used a pop music metaphor–I want a book with hooks. I’m looking for a Beatles album, and keep getting tired synthetic re-recordings not by the original artists.

One example of a fun read I actually consider fun is Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. It’s a long series of adventure novels starring a fantasy assassin. What makes it different from many other long-running fantasy series is that with every volume Brust makes an effort to write a different book with a different structure. And although they have a light touch, they’re still engaged with ideas. Vlad is an assassin and criminal who by the third book has realized his job is in fact not as cool as the average teenage Dungeons & Dragons player would prefer to think. His journey from there is at times a reassessment of his life, and at times an introduction to parts of his society to which he hadn’t previously given much thought. Also, every volume is a complete and not overly long standalone novel, something I appreciate more the older I get.

So… with the caveats out of the way, what do I find missing from Novelization Style?

My preferences are depth-agnostic: as I suggested, I like to find certain qualities in a book whether I’m reading a lighter novel or the kind of thing that gets classified as “literary.” There’s voice, of course: a novel needs a personality, its own style and its own way of telling a story. It needs to be not just descriptive but expressive.

Part of a novel’s personality comes from the prose, and part from content. Every really good novel is a little bit imperfect. The most fun, engaging books aren’t perfectly engineered; they have ambiguities, multiple interpretations, detours, and odd protuberances. They often include passages that look like side trips and diversions, straying from the plot but developing themes, ideas, and characters. And they do need themes, meaning questions the author wanted to explore or arguments they wanted to make. A lot of SF comes up with a premise–“Like, wow, man, what if there were vampires and werewolves?”–and stops there. Good novels, even good pulp novels, dig deeper; they have subtext as well as text.

They’re eccentric and weirdly shaped and packed with stuff. Some of the stuff may or may not work. Readers may disagree about which stuff worked and which didn’t. When that happens, that’s a clue that the novel is interesting.

Thinking of a way to describe this, I recalled how Rudy Rucker defined the word “gnarly” in an essay. Rucker quotes Stephen Wolfram who believes there are three kinds of mathematical processes: Predictable, Random, and Gnarly. Gnarly is structured, like the predictable processes, but unpredictable like the random ones.

Incompetent writing is often random. Novelization Style is predictable. What I’m interested in is writing that has at least a little bit of gnarl. Novelization Style, with its standardized voice, focus on action, and video-influenced style, isn’t well suited to deliver that.

Random Notes on Structure

This is another post in a series on a style of genre prose that I dislike; I wanted to analyze why I dislike it, and it’s turning out quite long. It will probably make more sense if you’ve read the earlier posts, which I’ve just linked to and are all under the tag “Novelization Style.”


This post is going to be a bit of a grab bag and, I will admit, probably the weakest in the series. So far I’ve discussed style almost exclusively. These observations are more about elements of story structure that, fitting with my running theme, feel like borrowings from visual media. As with everything else I’ve discussed, they’re all perfectly fine on their own–it’s just that together they add up to less than the sum of their parts. I don’t have a full-fledged theory on the structure of Novelization Style, so this will be a collection of notes.

Cutting Between Scenes

I’ll begin with a paragraph-level observation on a ridiculously specific subset of Novelization Style novels. Specifically, books with multiple point of view characters that also switch between those characters within chapters. It’s about how these books use section breaks–those gaps between paragraphs that tell you time has passed or the scene has changed within a chapter.

Unlike an omniscient narrator, Novelization Style doesn’t move from one point of view to the next within an unbroken passage of narrative.[1] Novelization Style switches characters with a distinct break–either a chapter break (A Game of Thrones stays with one character for every chapter, even naming each chapters after its POV character) or a section break.

During the decade and a half Doctor Who was off the air one or two Doctor Who novels came out every month. True confession: I’ve read most of them. Most were written in what I’m now calling Novelization Style, and most switched POVs. At some point I noticed the story chunks framed by the section breaks felt like scenes from the TV show: we’d get a chunk of story with one character, then cut to another at the point a TV show might cut to another scene–often a cliffhanger moment.

Again, Three Parts Dead is a good example: When Tara’s having her magical duel in court, the narrative breaks away at a tense moment and spends a few paragraphs with her friends in the audience before resuming, the same way a TV show would cut away for a bit of dialogue. What’s interesting is what happens when the novel gets into the more intense action set pieces, as in chapter 16–17 during a police raid intercut with a dinner and confrontation between Tara’s mentor and the villain. Often books that reach action sequences will pick up the pace of the prose but narrate the action straight through in an unbroken scene. Three Parts Dead picks up the pace of the section breaks and point of view switches. They come more often, switching focus characters within the raid and, at cliffhanger moments, switching scenes between the raid and the dinner. It feels like the way movies edit shots faster and tighter in action scenes. That’s a logical and reasonably effective technique for books in this style. Still, when I read them there are times I wish for a chapter of unbroken text.

The Teaser

Contemporary writing advice often borrows techniques from scriptwriting: I often see writers talking about “acts” and “beats,” for instance. I suspect few novels are specifically and deliberately written to the three-to-five-act structures and Save the Cat breakdowns favored by Hollywood. But I seem to encounter some storytelling tics more often in recent novels, and they feel like they drifted into prose from movies and TV. Not all Novelization Style novels use every one–again, Novelization Style is a collection of tendencies, not a hard formula–but it’s the style that uses them most. First, how these novels often begin, and how they often end.

Most TV shows set up the premise of the week with a pre-credits scene called a teaser. Often they don’t feature the main cast. The Avengers, for instance, usually showed a minor character getting eccentrically murdered before bringing in Steed and Mrs. Peel. Leverage began each episode with a new victim getting screwed over. This kind of opening is also common in horror movies: a lot of them (Night/Curse of the Demon is one example) show a random victim stumbling onto the monster before they introduce the main cast.

Anymore this is also a common feature in written SF. A lot of modern SF novels begin with prologues that don’t star anyone who will be important later in the book. Minor characters stumble onto the big threat or conspiracy the heroes will uncover, offering clues to the plot which prove meaningful 400 pages later. Leviathan Wakes has a prologue like this; so have the first volumes of half the epic fantasies published in the last decade.

This is actually a bit weird. It’s more common for novels to spend their first pages introducing, if not their protagonists, at least somebody we’ll spend a lot of the book with. (Again, look at Bujold’s openings: the first person we meet on the first page of her novels is usually the protagonist.) But it makes sense if you assume these prologues are teasers! The thing is, when I watch a teaser on The Avengers I know John Steed and Emma Peel will be along in a few minutes. When I read the prologue of a novel I haven’t even been introduced to the main characters. When I realize the apparent protagonist is going to disappear for the rest of the book it feels like hitting a narrative speed bump.

The Wrap-Up

I’ve also gotten used to reading a certain kind of ending. In the next-to-last chapter the hero has a big showdown with the villain. When the villain is defeated the chapter ends almost immediately. The next chapter jumps forward a few hours or days to when the situation has calmed down, and characters meet to exchange exposition, tie up loose ends, and explain what they plan to do next. This should be familiar to anyone who’s seen a procedural or monster-of-the-week series: there’s a punch-up and then a cut to everybody standing around with emergency vehicles in the background, expositing. Or, heck, The Avengers again. Steed and Mrs. Peel knock down the villain; ten seconds and one fade-out later they’re cracking jokes while doing something amusingly wine-related.

Which, again, works best on television. Showing the immediate consequences of a villain showdown, all the cleanup and the taking of responsibility for things, would throw off the pacing. On the other hand… a book shouldn’t have that problem because prose can vary its pace, and summarize. Except that Novelization Style usually doesn’t. And a lot is elided, sometimes, in that time skip. Sometimes I’d like to know how the protagonists managed to dig themselves out of the hole they’re generally still in. Sometimes the logistical details of cleaning up after a villain are as interesting as the defeat.

When a story has a villain–whether a plain old conventional evil genius or something more metaphorical but still unequivocally bad, like a pending natural disaster–a big confrontation is normal. What’s interesting is that with Novelization Style the confrontation is frequently also the story’s emotional high. The protagonist solves the plot and completes their character arc at the same time. The other big moments along the way tend to be action set pieces and trailer moments.

I think back on books I’ve enjoyed, and I’m specifically including my lighter, more adventureish favorites: Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels, Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, old mystery novelists like Margery Allingham and Edmund Crispin. It strikes me how varied they are. Some of them, the mystery novels especially, are formulaic, but I still can’t always predict exactly which chapter the climax will come in, or what will happen just afterwards, or where the emotional high will be. Some stories come to a climax a few chapters before the end, and some hit their emotional high before the big plot-finishing scene, or after it, and some wrap everything up satisfyingly in their last few pages.

And though many books do action well, the frantic set pieces aren’t the parts that stick with me: I recall quieter moments, what the characters said or felt. When I read a novel that gives the emotional content less attention than the action, I retain less.

Stakes

At shorter lengths, Novelization Style can be small; at novel length, it has to be big. A disaster or a conspiracy must threaten to upend the protagonist’s world (unless they’re among those dystopian heroes who have to upend society themselves). As the novel begins, its problems may seem limited to the protagonist’s own life. But by the two-thirds mark at the latest it will reveal that, no, actually the whole city is under threat, or the whole country, or even the world. Mass death or go home!

This is what’s known as “raising the stakes.” That’s supposed to mean that a novel’s central question should feel more important, more intense as the novel continues. SF often assumes instead that the initial stakes are not enough to sustain a novel. But the initial stakes were what got me interested in the novel in the first place! I mean, I love when I’m reading a story and it turns out it was a completely different story all along–that’s a great trick to pull off. But when it just turns into a bigger story–when the only revelation is that, once again, lives are at stake–it feels like a bait and switch.

If I’ve been mentioning Lois McMaster Bujold a lot it’s because I recently finished her latest book, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. (Which is the Worst Title Ever. But the book is good.) It’s science fiction about two older people planning the next stage of their lives in a world where technical advances give them more options. As the novel progresses it continues to be about two older people planning the next stage of their lives. Bujold is serenely confident in her ability to make older people planning subsequent life stages interesting and her confidence is not misplaced.

Which was refreshing, because a lot of SF novels are about preventing or dealing with mass trauma. I mean, it’s got to be more than half the genre, especially if you include the books that deal with smaller issues but have mass trauma as part of the background. It’s numbing. After reading about too many existential threats they cease to mean anything, like an air conditioner that hums so constantly I’ve tuned out. The breathtaking epics no longer take breath. I need smaller SF like Gentleman Jole to create contrast, make the epics feel epic again.

Extras

Lastly, and most sketchily… when reading Novelization Style I often get the impression that the characters walking around in the background are extras–nonspeaking actors walking around in the background of a scene, the ones we’re not supposed to pay attention to.

It’s hard to describe. But sometimes when reading a novel I get the impression that the protagonists, and other plot-relevant characters, aren’t deeply embedded in their society. As though they live in a plot bubble populated entirely by plot-related people, and everyone outside the bubble is just background. Not just that they aren’t the characters the story is about, but that they’re a qualitatively different kind of people within the fiction.

In many novels even characters who appear for less than a page show signs of life. A passerby cracks a joke, a shop clerk isn’t one hundred percent cooperative. The hero asks for directions, and in the paragraph it takes to explain the direction-giver shows off a personality quirk. The characters aren’t important, but the writer pulls off the illusion that they could be people with their own lives and stories. Other novels–especially those written in Novelization Style–treat very minor characters like film extras, who aren’t supposed to draw attention to themselves; they fade into the background, keeping out of the way of the speaking roles. Novelization Style stories sometimes don’t even acknowledge other people are around unless a protagonist interacts with them. I think it’s related to that lack of descriptive details I discussed in an earlier post, which affects characters as much as settings.

In some stories the characters really are off in their own little world–say, the cast of a stereotypical country house murder mystery. In that case this is not a problem. Where it does become a problem is when the story gives the impression that other people’s lives aren’t just less important to this story but diegetically less important than the protagonist’s. Some time ago I read a blog post I found striking enough that I saved the URL, speculating on what about our current culture would look weird in 50 years. The author guessed it might be stories that treat minor characters, extras, as literally less important than protagonists. Like, the hero causes a car accident during a chase and we’re supposed to find it exciting and not worry whether the people in the car were okay.

I’ll take a chance on almost any book about travelling to strange alternate realities. So a while back I read a very bad book called The Flight of the Silvers. The strangest part was that the heroes travelled to their new reality after our entire world was utterly destroyed… and it took them no time at all to recover from the shock. Because, yes, billions of people including everyone they ever knew and loved had just died horribly, but the important thing was that now they had superpowers.

Jo Walton in The Just City came up with a phrase I find useful in this context: equal significance. Every novel has characters around its edges who aren’t relevant, and I’m not necessarily interested in reading about them… but I want the story to imply that everyone in its world is equally significant, that it’s a place where the needs of people who don’t have stories told about them are not less important than the needs of a protagonist.


That’s it for describing Novelization Style. In the last post, I’ll summarize, wrap up, describe what’s missing for me in this style, and admit that I enjoy the occasional Novelization Style book–my problem isn’t that it exists, it’s that there’s so much of it.


  1. Badly written Novelization Style sometimes hops from one character’s head to another in a way that superficially resembles omniscient POV. The best way to tell omniscient POV from head-hopping close third person is that omniscient is never disorienting. When a close POV goes head-hopping it’s sometimes momentarily unclear whose head we’re in.  ↩

Action and Time

This is another post in a series on a style of genre prose that I dislike; I wanted to analyze why I dislike it, and it’s turning out quite long. It will probably make more sense if you’ve read the earlier posts, which I’ve just linked to and are all under the tag “Novelization Style.”

Action-Packed

Having bloviated at length about the transparent prose/close third person tag team, a question occurs to me: why don’t I struggle to slog through Lois McMaster Bujold’s novels as I did Leviathan Wakes? Because I just read her latest book, and raced through it in a couple of days. Bujold’s prose is straightforward[1] and she consistently sticks to close third person points of view. Why don’t I lump Bujold’s writing in with Novelization Style?

The difference is Bujold’s attention to her characters’ internal lives. The most important aspect of any scene is how her characters feel. They constantly analyze themselves, ruminating on ethics, fundamental goals, and underlying drives. They speculate on the goals, ethics, and drives of everyone around them. They apply what they’ve learned to general theories of human behavior. Many of Bujold’s most memorable lines are pithy observations on how people behave in the societies she’s created. The first page of a book hints at what it considers important. Novelization Style novels often begin with an action scene, or a prologue about a minor character stumbling upon the novel’s central conspiracy, or both. The first page of a Bujold novel introduces her protagonist and situates us in their mental world.

Novelization Style characters mostly think about what’s happening now. They react to what’s in front of them, focus on immediate goals. There’s less time for introspection. They save the realizations about underlying motivations and deep character for the climax. As I’ve said, Novelization Style is influenced by film and television. I gave it that name because reading it feels like reading a novelization of an imaginary movie. It emphasizes what movies and television are good at: action and dialogue. Novelization Style is about things happening.

For an example I’ll use Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, which unlike Leviathan Wakes is not bad. That’s what make it a better example for talking about structure: I finished it! But it took me longer to finish than I expected. I kept putting it down and not picking it up again. It took me a while to figure out why. Although Three Parts Dead is better written (and doesn’t consistently use the same point of view and prose), in places it’s structured like Novelization Style.

Here’s an example. In Three Parts Dead legal documents control magic; elaborate contracts create the gods who keep civilization running. Basically, wizards are lawyers. When the god of Alt Coulomb dies the church calls in a wizard firm to fix the contracts. In Chapter 11 junior lawyer Tara Abernathy is ready to argue her first case in front of a judge… and the book shifts into a magical otherworld where the trial plays out as a metaphorical special effects wizard battle action sequence.

Which is weird. A court case is an argument and novels are better at arguments than fight scenes. Not that novels can’t do action; talking is just more in their wheelhouse. When the courtroom drama switches out for a magical punch-up it feels like we’ve reached the part of an Agatha Christie novel where the suspects have gathered for the big explanation, but instead of monologuing Miss Marple shouts “MURDERVISION ACTIVATE!” and there’s a dazzle of colored lights and suddenly the suspects are watching the murder happen. But, just as Agatha Christie adaptations handle the big reveal by having the detective narrate flashbacks to the crime, if Three Parts Dead were a movie a metaphorical wizard battle might be exactly what you wanted.

Earlier Tara examines the contracts that constitute the dead god’s “body.” Unsatisfied with just describing how the contracts are the god’s body, and explaining what’s wrong with them, the book takes Tara into another alternate reality so she can literally walk around on a giant body and look at metaphorical wounds. And Three Parts Dead has other action set pieces that sit oddly in a magic legal thriller. The police raid is an important plot point, but the monster that chases a supporting character through the church feels like a set piece a Hollywood movie might include to fill time and supply exciting footage for the trailer. And although the novel’s climax takes place in another courtroom it is at heart a superhero fight.

Magic in Three Parts Dead is a metaphor for the laws and economics and civil engineering our civilizations depend on: understood by few, draped in mysterious rules and incantations. Another book might spend more pages exploring what this metaphor says about the infrastructure of a city. Here, philosophizing takes a back seat to action and suspense, conspiracy and murder.

This may relate to some common writerly advice: show, don’t tell. This means that if a story wants to claim something is the case, it should demonstrate it. Like, don’t tell us Fred has a sense of humor and then have him take everything completely seriously. Movies define the rule more strictly: they never tell us outright about Fred’s sense of humor, we just see him laugh off a minor problem and deduce it. This is also Novelization Style’s version of “show, don’t tell.” So it rarely stops to analyze very deeply what’s happening in a character’s mind. And scenes where the characters just sit and talk about ideas for pages, My Dinner With Andre style, are as rare in Novelization Style as in movies. Most dialogue is functional; plot-advancing conversations are leavened by the occasional wisecrack. Open Three Parts Dead at random and whatever dialogue you hit upon is likely to be question-and-answer exposition.

What I miss most in these books are parts where the story just stops to talk about something for a couple of pages. The way Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary will start a chapter with a paragraph on briefcases, or Gerard Manley Hopkins. The way Kelly Link spends half of “Magic for Beginners” describing an imaginary TV series. For me the most memorable parts of a story are often embedded chunks of essay.[2] I’m among the few readers who enjoyed the nattering-about-whaling chapters of Moby-Dick. And I can enjoy books by people whose views I consider disconnected from reality if they’re up-front about them; at least they’re giving me something to argue with.

(This is one reason I like first person narrators. The character is telling their story for a reason. They want to convince you of something. So this inherently opinionated viewpoint naturally nudges the story towards essayish writing.)

A Matter of Timing

I’ve said Novelization Style is present-oriented–not just about things happening, but about what’s happening right now. This leads to a certain kind of pacing. Novelization Style mostly narrates at a moment-to-moment pace, the pace a scene would play out on video:

Bob glared at the shed. ‘Well, I guess I’d better shovel out that popcorn,’ he said. He picked up his shovel.

This is the way most novels narrate, most of the time, but they’ll also summarize long stretches of time: “Bob spent the next two weeks shoveling the popcorn out of his shed”. (Three Parts Dead does a lot of this in its first chapter before going to moment-to-moment pacing almost exclusively.) Or they’ll describe how things usually happen (as in the first chapters of Les Miserables, which spends its first hundred pages on the biography of a minor character; they alternate moment-to-moment anecdotes with descriptions of his habits). Novelization Style does these things, sometimes, but less often. Rather than summarize a long period of popcorn-shoveling it will skip over it with a chapter or section break. When Novelization Style summarizes, it’s usually immediately after one of these breaks, a way of getting back up to speed before returning to moment-to-moment pacing.

Most movies and TV episodes take place over a limited span of time–usually hours or days. Maybe weeks. Some movies cover more time, but it’s not common. It’s been a while since anyone cared about strict dramatic unity, but when individual shots are inherently paced moment-to-moment keeping the story to a limited time span just seems more natural. This is even more true of individual TV episodes… although an entire series, if it’s successful, covers years of the characters’ lives.[3]

Novelization Style’s steady pace can have different effects depending on whether the book in question stands by itself (the movie model) or is one volume in an ongoing soap opera (the TV model). Standalone novels, even when the page count is long, can feel overly spare and cut down. Like a movie that has to keep the budget and the run time from going overboard, they try to strip away any detail, incident, or line of dialogue that doesn’t advance the plot or reinforce the theme. They cut ambiguities, detours, and complications.

But in soap opera novels, the pace has the opposite effect. They seem to plod, skipping nothing no matter how unimportant, playing out events an omniscient narrator might choose to summarize. If Bob is shoveling popcorn out of a shed, and there’s no way to have that happen during a chapter break, we’re going to hear every detail of Bob’s popcorn-shoveling adventure, moment by moment.

A Song of Ice and Fire is notorious for dragging itself out (though there are other series that are far worse). I found an interview with George R. R. Martin on io9 in which he makes an interesting comment about what the wrong kind of pacing can do to a novel:

But when I actually got into writing them, the events have a certain momentum. So you write a chapter and then in your next chapter, it can’t be six months later, because something’s going to happen the next day. So you have to write what happens the next day, and then you have to write what happens the week after that. And the news gets to some other place.

And pretty soon, you’ve written hundreds of pages and a week has passed, instead of the six months, or the year that you wanted to pass. So you end a book, and you’ve had a tremendous amount of events — but they’ve taken place over a short time frame, and the eight-year-old kid is still eight years old.

Novels that feel free to vary the pace can deal with time in all sorts of ways–they can switch from overviews to anecdotes and back again. Novelization Style’s adherence to a certain kind of narration, and a certain kind of pacing, dumps a lot of those tools out of the toolbox.


I think I’ll have just two more posts in this series. Next time, more about the tics Novelization Style borrows from Hollywood storytelling. After that, a conclusion and summary of why Novelization Style doesn’t do much for me, and what I’m missing when I read it.


  1. Although I’d argue her prose is deceptively simple, as opposed to just simple. Bujold writes the sort of prose that gets called transparent but she varies her tone noticeably depending on what genre she’s writing–her science fiction novels have a contemporary sound, her Chalion novels are a little more elevated, and her Sharing Knife series, an fantasy series with a 19th-century American feel, is more folksy.  ↩

  2. I should acknowledge that what I’m describing comes close to a common failing of bad epic fantasy: long passages of invented history and myth are often terrible. That’s not inevitable, though; it’s because they tend to be indistinguishable from each other and disconnected from the story. I’ve just finished Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories. One of the things I love about that book, and A Stranger in Olondria, is how they weave in the history and culture Samatar created; Samatar’s worldbuilding is specific, and has a direct emotional connection to her characters.  ↩

  3. Television is casual about time in general. It’s often strikingly difficult to tell how much time is supposed to have passed during an episode of Doctor Who or Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s just… a thing happens, and then another thing, and we don’t always have enough cues to work out how long it took.  ↩

The Narrator Behind the Curtain

This is the next part in an ongoing series on a writing style I’m calling Novelization Style. It may not make much sense unless you’ve read Part One and Part Two.

If you look back at the first post in this series you’ll notice that I identified the narrative voice that opens The Haunting of Hill House not as “Shirley Jackson” but just “the narrator.” I don’t know that the omniscient narrator of The Haunting of Hill House_ bears any resemblance to the literal Shirley Jackson. There’s a concept in criticism called the implied author. It’s a mental image of a work’s author composed of traits and opinions you, the reader, infer from the text. In other words, the implied author is the kind of person you think wrote the story, judging purely from the story. It may not have anything to do with the actual person. For instance, my implied author version of Robert Heinlein resembles Foghorn Leghorn.

The implied author is not necessarily the narrator. The narrator of The Left Hand of Darkness is Genly Ai; the implied author is the idea you get from reading it of Ursula K. Le Guin. Of course, in that novel the first-person narrator is a character (which can be an actual named character, or just a narrator with a personality–for instance, the narrator of Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel The Slynx is just a nameless third person narrator, but speaks the language of the novel’s fictional world). In a book like The Haunting of Hill House, in which the narrative voice is just… well, a narrative voice, it’s entirely practical to treat the narrator and the implied author as the same thing. (I’m pretty sure the narrator of Terry Pratchett’s novels is Terry Pratchett.) A narrator and an implied author are alike in that they have points of view and opinions, and make assumptions.

A recurring discussion in SF criticism revolves around defaults–the cultural and material details a story assumes go without saying. What customs, lifestyles, habits, and technologies do our stories treat as normal? What do they treat as alien? What don’t they think to imagine could even be different at all? Every story makes assumptions about the way the world works, but in a genre full of imagined worlds these questions take on extra significance.

Failure to question assumptions is a basic hazard of SF. A lot of “golden age” SF projected mid–20th century gender roles into the future, casting women as nurses, secretaries, and space telephone operators. Not that translating parts of our own society into other worlds is always a problem, even when it’s unrealistic. SF is about the real world, and written for an audience that lives in the real world, and SF writers have to do a certain amount of “translating” other worlds into forms that make sense to their audience. I mean, I’m really glad Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings in English and not Elven, y’know? The problem comes when stories unthinkingly duplicate our defaults when we ought to be asking whether they could, or should, be different.

Or, rather, when narrators duplicate our defaults. For assumptions to be made there must be someone to do the assuming. This is where Novelization Style becomes a problem. Novelization style uses transparent prose, which tries to present the story as though transmitted directly to the reader, unmediated. It uses close third person narration, which tries to present a character’s point of view and nothing beyond it, as though transmitted directly to the reader, unmediated.

In effect Novelization Style has no narrator–or, at least, the narrator, and the implied author, is neutral, impartial, and devoid of personality. No one is telling this story. It’s a camera, pointed at a set, with no one behind it.

So you don’t ask “Who is the narrator?” which means you also don’t ask questions like “Why is this narrator telling this story? Why did they make these decisions about the plot, or the characters? What do they want me to think about all this, and do I agree?” The story feels less like something someone made, and more like something that just sort of happened. This does not exactly encourage you to think about what you’re reading. When I read a book like Leviathan’s Wake it’s a struggle to actively engage with the book instead of… well, just sort of skim along the surface with it.

This is where the writing gets tricky, because this disengagement is an accidental side effect. But it’s going to sound a bit like I’m accusing writers of writing this way to discourage questions about what they write. This is not even remotely any writer’s goal. I thought I should pause to explicitly note that, to forestall confusion.

Because maybe, if we’re reading something like those old space operas with no place for women, reading thoughtlessly reinforces ideas we’d be better off questioning. A few years ago, because it seemed popular at the time, I gave Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy a chance. What I remember is that the pro-democracy, reformist male lead gained some political power and quickly became a dictatorial tinpot general because, gosh, going all Pinochet just worked better. The books seemed barely aware they were making a political argument.

When I return to old SF I read as a child, I’m always surprised how much sexism, weird politics, and general dodgy philosophizing just did not stick in my memory. It’s partly because at that age my brain was good at editing out anything it didn’t care to notice. But mostly because in the stuff I was reading (mostly conventional-wisdom “classics” like Asimov and Heinlein, because those were the books I had heard of and as a child I had no taste[1]) took crappy assumptions for granted, and I came across hardly any SF that didn’t take crappy assumptions for granted, and I just uncritically assumed that this was How SF Worked.

Not that the people who write these stories were, or are, Bad People Who Write Bad Things and Must be Censured. It’s just that every writer is a fallible human beings with blind spots. And, again, this isn’t the effect Novelization Style is aiming for. I think Novelization Style is after the stated goal of transparent prose advocates: writing that gets out of the way of the story. But in chasing that goal it reaches for an objectivity it can’t have. Fiction is never objective, because it’s fiction. Someone made it up. Everything in a story was put there, consciously or unconsciously, by a creator.

I implied way back in the introduction, and hinted at a couple times since, that Novelization Style is heavily influenced by movies and television. I’ll start to explain that more in the next post. For now the point is that when we watch a film it’s easy to sink into the assumption that the camera’s view is “objective.” Not in the sense that the movie itself is somehow “real,” naturally, but in the sense that, unless a scene is explicitly framed as a dramatization of a story told by an onscreen character[2], we assume the camera is not an unreliable narrator. Or any kind of narrator at all. It looks like the story is just being, y’know, shown to us.

Which isn’t necessarily the case. It’s harder to notice, but video is narrated as well. I don’t want to get too far into a different medium (for more detail I’ll direct readers to an essay at Eruditorum Press which really explains this better than I could). For my purposes the important point is that a scene’s framing, lighting, editing, and music tell us how to think about the action and, crucially, how the filmmaker thinks we ought to think about it. If you doubt it, take a look at that trailer for The Shining that was famously recut to look like a family comedy. The same performances from the same script. The same footage. But different editing and music change the meaning entirely.

Most importantly, that alternate Shining trailer changes the meaning of the shots just by choosing what to show, and what not to show. It uses scenes that could just as easily appear in a family comedy and not, say, the bit where rivers of blood pour out of the elevators. In any medium, what a story includes and what it leaves out will be a major influence on what meaning we, the audience, take from it. That holds true even when we don’t notice what’s left out, or don’t question what’s included–which become more likely the more the story we’re reading or watching has a veneer of illusory objectivity, a frequent characteristic of Novelization Style.

That veneer is an artifact of the “transparent prose” notion: treating a medium as a pane of glass. I think it’s reinforced by the ways Novelization Style borrows from visual media. That’s going to be the subject of the next two or three posts, because this essay really is rambling excessively. Next up: how Novelization Style tends to focus on physical action, surface thoughts, and immediate goals.


  1. I’m one of those people who distrust social media, and think our attention spans are dying, oh woe is us, et cetera. But I still wish I’d had the internet when I was a kid, just because it might have directed me to some better, less famous SF books a whole lot earlier.  ↩

  2. The classic example is Rashomon.  ↩

The Amazing Transparent Narrator

This post is the second part of an ongoing series on a writing style I’m calling Novelization Style. It’s not complete in itself and if you haven’t yet read the first part you should go take a look before starting part two.

***

Novelization Style, like omniscient narration, usually spends time with multiple POV characters, some of whom might have the point of view for only a few paragraphs.[1] Unlike omniscient, Novelization Style tends not to vary its distance from the characters or step outside their points of view. It switches from one character’s close point of view straight to the next. And those points of view all sound pretty much the same.

Novels with varied points of view often vary their voices to match them. Sometimes that involves subtle changes in prose. Take a random book I grabbed off my shelf, Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station. The main characters are a CIA agent and a 120-year-old Civil War veteran. Chapters set in the agent’s office are written conventionally for mid–20th century SF: snappy with lots of dialog. The veteran’s chapters have less dialog, longer sentences, less contemporary phrasing, and more repetition.

More often it’s not the prose that changes. It’s what subjects a point of view chooses to focus on, and what it will or won’t say about them. The Haunting of Hill House’s style doesn’t change radically between the framing passages and Eleanor’s point of view. There are more striking stylistic differences between the conventional close third person narration and Eleanor’s stream of consciousness. Still, the bookending narrator is distinct from Eleanor: it doesn’t just know more than she does, it’s more knowing.

In Novelization Style the stylistic differences between the characters’ points of view, if any, are so subtle they might as well not be there. In Leviathan Wakes Holden’s point of view sounds just like the POV of its other protagonist, Detective Miller, and also just like the POV of the character in the prologue. Leviathan Wakes does not narrate the insides of these characters’ heads differently.[2]

This is because Novelization Style tends to be written in transparent prose. I’ve complained before about this great literary ideal of SF fandom. The idea is that transparent prose vanishes while you’re reading it, like you’re watching the novel through a window. It uploads pure unmediated story directly to your brain. Which doesn’t entirely make sense inasmuch as the novel is in fact made of prose. It’s like pretending a brick wall doesn’t contain bricks. To me “transparent prose” means the flattened style you get when you’re trying not to have a style, like a cinematographer who points a camera straight at the set and walks away.

Genre Shouldn’t Mean Generic

I prefer prose that isn’t going for transparency. Not necessarily prose that’s poetic, baroque, or drowning in obscure adjectives. Look at Philip K. Dick’s prose–it’s plain, but it’s got personality. I just mean prose that’s willing to be idiosyncratic or original. That pays attention to sound and rhythm and imagery and knows that if the audience is occasionally aware of the artifice, that’s okay.

Here’s the thing: if it’s done at all well this kind of prose actually communicates more than transparent prose. Let’s turn back to the first three sentences of The Haunting of Hill House, which is straightforward and easy to read but not, y’know, transparent.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

A more obvious way to begin the first sentence might be “Nothing living.” “No live organism” is not the phrasing that would come first to most people’s minds. But it’s absolutely right. This sentence doesn’t just say that to stay sane every living thing needs dreams. (Stated baldly and without irony, the sentiment is banal and entirely un-Shirley Jacksonish.) The word choice implies extra levels of meaning: “No live organism” sets a tone of scholarly detachment, indicates the narrator’s other-end-of-the-microscope perspective, and distinguishes the narrator from Eleanor’s less worldly point of view. “Even larks and katydids” is also a specific choice of words; “pigeons and beetles” or “owls and wasps” would have had different associations. A lesser writer might have just gone for “even insects.”

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.

You’re reading about living creatures but the next sentence is about a house, and it’s described as “not sane” as though this house has a mind to not be sane with. This is standard gothic imagery, nothing new, but even so it sparks your imagination in a way “The dark old house stood in the hills” wouldn’t. What’s more interesting is how even an unexpected possessive pronoun can make a big difference: Hill House stands against its hills where most writers would say the hills. Which immediately tells you what kind of house it is and what kind of people once lived there.

Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

So Hill House is not insane in the conventional way. Jackson doesn’t describe it with any of the usual clichés: crazy angles, broken windows, rotting floorboards. Hill House is neat, firm, and sensible. Respectable, but mad.

Three sentences, the first not even mentioning the house. And even if you’ve never read the book or seen the movie[3], even without knowing Hill House’s location or architectural style, you probably have a pretty good idea what kind of house Hill House is.

Now–and I realize I’m being horribly unfair here–let’s look at Leviathan Wakes.

Let’s admit it: Leviathan Wakes is boring. There’s nothing wrong with it, exactly. The writing is perfectly competent…but it’s competent the way an encyclopedia entry is competent. It conveys the story with minimal fuss but it doesn’t have… well, I guess you could say it doesn’t have hooks, in the pop song sense. Rhythm, rhetorical devices, anything to hold your attention. Descriptions and word choices are unsurprising; that “improbable bones” line I quoted above is as good as it gets. All very functional, but bland. In places it’s downright awkward:

If the Canterbury sensed an anomaly, it would alert her. If a system errored, it would alert her. If Captain McDowell left the command and control deck, it would alert her so she could turn the music off and look busy when he arrived.

For the first two sentences that’s a good attempt at parallelism, but the way the third sentence carries on past “it would alert her” is the prose equivalent of a power chord interrupted by a droopy slide whistle noise.

Style aside, what’s striking is how little sense we get of what being on the Canterbury is like. Not that I want blueprints and infodumps. Nothing kills a novel like over-describing everything. What I’m missing are a certain kind of detail–interesting word choices and unexpected images. The kind that can, for example, tell you what sort of house you’re dealing with in just three sentences. The Canterbury is a stock set, a Default Spaceship. All we learn that isn’t a standard spaceship tropes is that it lacks the usual giant viewscreen, and that the medical officer debrides wounds with maggots.[4] Without contradicting anything in this chapter the Canterbury might resemble the Enterprise or the Nostromo or the Serenity or even the TARDIS–environments that not only look different but would feel different to exist inside, the way your home feels different from a library or a supermarket.

Different settings feel samey in transparent prose for the same reason different points of view sound similar. Transparent prose is trying not to feel or sound like anything. Characters have voices and personalities. Paradoxically, transparent prose wants to convey those voices and personalities while effacing any sign of voice or personality in itself.


In the next post, a little bit more on what Novelization Style’s close third person/transparent prose pairing does to a story. After that I’ll (finally) start detailing the content and story structure I see in this style.


  1. Horror stories looking to generate cheap pathos often spend a few paragraphs in the POV of an extra about to be killed by the monster.  ↩

  2. When I read novels in this style frequent switches between characters often throw me out of the book. There are several reasons for this, but sometimes part of the problem is that it’s hard to tell right away whose point of view I’m in. For a split second my brain has to spend metaphorical processor cycles working out who and where the novel just jumped to.  ↩

  3. No, there was no remake. It was all a bad dream. Put it out of your head.  ↩

  4. Oh, and the computer screens give users “an odd greenish cast.” Because apparently this starship is fitted out with Commodore PETs.  ↩

Narrators, Visible and Not

This blog has developed a running theme: I like science fiction and fantasy, so why do I have trouble finding novels in those genres I want to read? I’ve complained several times that I find many of the worlds imagined by SF even less pleasant than the one in which a large number of people are willing to vote for Donald Trump, but this is not in fact my biggest issue. It’s prose. Quite simply, very little 21st century SF is written in a style I find engaging.

I started writing an essay to figure out what, exactly, is bothering me. It turned out to be, like, really long, and I’m not done yet. So I’m turning it into a series. Given my (lack of) writing speed it may appear once a week. I might collect it all in one place when I’m done; if I get feedback in the meantime that would strengthen my arguments, I’ll edit the final piece.

I’m coming to recognize a particular style that’s got me bored. It’s common in genre novels. (All genres, though I encounter it most in SF.) I can’t define it precisely. These blog posts will be me talking out loud to myself, figuring out something that’s been in the back of my mind, rather than staking out a firm thesis. Also, it’s important to note that the stylistic quirks I’m going to talk about are tendencies, not hard rules. Most novels that tend toward this style don’t stick to it all the way through, or lack one or two of the characteristics I’ll identify. But I can make generalizations:

  1. This style is written almost entirely in the close third person point of view. The narrative doesn’t necessarily stick to a single character’s point of view, but it rarely uses omniscient techniques. Instead it shifts directly from one close POV to another at section or chapter breaks.
  2. This style is written in transparent prose.
  3. Stories in this style privilege action over dialogue, ideas, or psychological observation. This is the key to how this style works: it focuses on what’s happening in the present moment; the characters’ immediate reactions, short-term goals, and surface thoughts. It’s reluctant to draw back and take a wider view of the world, or include anything that might read like an essay or a broader character study. This style tends to conform to an extreme interpretation of “show, don’t tell” more suited to movies, a medium in which telling is impractical.
  4. These stories are influenced by Hollywood movies. They may even be structured according to the principles laid out in screenwriting books like Story and Save the Cat. The climax is often an action set piece or fighty confrontation with the big villain. The central conflict is resolved more by doing than talking.
  5. On the other hand, if a book is part of a series the plot may not be so tightly constructed. It may run in place for chapters at a time, like a TV series drawing out its story arcs every time it’s renewed for another season.
  6. This style often works like visual media even on the level of the prose. For example, breaks in the narrative often define “scenes” in ways that parallel the editing of a movie. Stories often end chapters or sections with cliffhangers. Section breaks may be used for pacing like movies use cuts, increasing (and leading to shorter “shots”) as the action picks up.
  7. The pace of the action is usually steady. Time scales usually hew close to those of movies or television seasons–hours, days, at most weeks. This can have different effects depending on whether the book follows the “self-contained movie” or the “soap opera” model. Self-contained stories often try to strip away any detail, incident, or line of dialogue that isn’t absolutely functional. On the other hand, volumes in ongoing sagas may seem to plod, as though unwilling to skip over anything no matter how irrelevant.

By themselves most of these stylistic choices are not problems, but I’m tired of what happens when they come together. When I read a novel in this style it feels like reading the novelization of a nonexistent movie. For the purposes of these posts I’ll call this style Novelization Style.

Points of View

The first characteristic of Novelization Style is the close third person point of view. Novelization Style stays in one character’s head at a time, narrating nothing but that character’s thoughts and experiences. This may not sound like much of a characteristic inasmuch as close third person is the most common POV in fiction. What’s important is that Novelization Style sticks to close third person wherever possible, and usually for the entire story.

I’ll explain what I mean with a contrast. Here’s the first paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

These are not the thoughts of any specific character. The Haunting of Hill House spends most of its time in the mind of Eleanor Vance, but it’s bookended by an omniscient narrator who introduces us to Hill House and its impending inhabitants. Unlike most of the novel, Eleanor’s introduction isn’t close to Eleanor. It knows things she doesn’t. This omniscient narrator is very present–it isn’t just a narrative point of view, it admits that it has a point of view. (When it says Dr. Montague “thought of himself as careful and conscientious,” you can tell it’s using the words thought of himself advisedly.)

Even after switching to Eleanor’s POV Hill House varies its distance. Sometimes it tells us what Eleanor experiences and thinks. Sometimes it backs away, narrating what other characters say and do in Eleanor’s presence but not how Eleanor feels about them. Sometimes it creeps in to peer over her shoulder, feeding us her unfiltered stream of consciousness.

Now let’s look at James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan’s Wake, because Leviathan’s Wake is the world’s most perfect example of a much-hyped, well-loved SF novel that bored the will to live out of me. (I gave up halfway through; when I discuss structure later on, I’ll refer to a book I actually finished.) Also the publisher conveniently provides us with an online sample chapter, so, hey, no retyping. Here’s an early bit:

If you asked OPA recruiters when they were drunk and feeling expansive, they might say there were a hundred million in the Belt. Ask an inner planet census taker, it was nearer to fifty million. Any way you looked, the population was huge and needed a lot of water.

So now the Canterbury and her dozens of sister ships in the Pur’n’Kleen Water Company made the loop from Saturn’s generous rings to the Belt and back hauling glaciers, and would until the ships aged into salvage wrecks.

So as with Hill House a narrator is setting the scene, getting us situated in the novel’s world before pulling in closer to a character’s head.[1] What’s interesting is how it pulls in–this is the very next line:

Jim Holden saw some poetry in that.

Jim Holden is the protagonist of Leviathan Wakes. He’s been looking out a window, thinking about the history of his ship and his job, and everything we’ve read has been inside his point of view. This is true of this entire chapter. The novel orients us to its world by walking Holden through a routine morning on his spaceship and having him notice or contemplate everything it wants us to understand: “Seven years in Earth’s navy, five years working in space with civilians, and he’d never gotten used to the long, thin, improbable bones of Belters.” All facts are things Holden would know and all opinions are his.

Leviathan Wakes sticks to Holden’s heels like a nervous puppy. The narrative distance is constant, the narrator self-effacing and the narrative locked into the point of view character’s head. The effect is that there doesn’t appear to be a narrator, as though this is a direct telepathic transmission from a fictional character’s brain. The narrator is invisible. A while back I read a blog post arguing that a lot of first-person SF could be rewritten in the third person without changing very much. For Leviathan Wakes, and other Novelization Style books, the opposite is true. It would take hardly any rewriting to switch these books to first person.

This post is the first in a series, not a complete argument. So, again, I want to make it clear that just the point of view is not enough to classify a book as Novelization Style. Close third person is a standard style in fiction. I didn’t give up on Leviathan Wakes because it was written in close third person point of view. The problem was the way that narrative choice combined with other characteristics of the text, one of the most important being its prose, which is usually the kind of thing that gets described as “transparent.” In the next post I’ll discuss transparent prose and what happens when it’s combined with the strict close third person point of view.

Next: The Amazing Transparent Narrator


  1. Unlike the Hill House excerpt, this isn’t the very beginning of the novel. There’s a prologue that isn’t part of the sample.  ↩

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon

I’m often frustrated by the sameness of most modern SF novels’ voices. That sameness is made more stark when I read a book like Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon that has a voice of its own. Part of its individuality comes from the setting. This is a standard Earth-based first contact story, like The Day the Earth Stood Still or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But these aliens, perhaps realizing we’ve seen an awful lot of U.S. and U.K. based visitations already, decide to park their spaceship in Lagos. More importantly for me–because at the moment it’s the kind of thing I notice–is that much of it is written in omniscient point of view instead of the close third person used by most modern genre fiction.

Cover of Lagoon

I sometimes think I’m tired of SF novels with casts of thousands, like A Game of Thrones. Maybe my problem is more with novels that combine huge casts with close third person, like A Game of Thrones.[1] They’re choppy. I’m just getting interested in a character and their situation when the story jumps to another and forces me to readjust; my momentum is broken. Omniscient narration flows, smoothly carrying the narrative from one character to the next.

Lagoon is free with its point of view. It can focus on one character, tour the inner voices of a crowd, or pull back to survey the city. There are chapters from the POVs of animals, first person witness statements–whatever the book needs in that moment. Some reviews have opined that most of Lagoon’s characters are a bit flat, and to some extent that’s true, but for the type of novel this is that’s fine. Lagoon isn’t any one character’s story. It’s a study of a city reacting to a historically weird event. The characters are mosaic tiles–just chips of color in themselves, but making a bigger, deeper picture.

It’s also a mosaic of genres. It’s first contact science fiction, but with regular sidesteps into fantasy, myth, and magic realism. Lagoon is the kind of book where the three main human characters turn out to be superheroes because, hey, why not. It reminded me of Douglas Adams even though it’s only a comedy in the old fashioned “not a tragedy” sense, maybe because of its willingness to enter the point of view of anyone or anything–there’s a bit with a bat that reminded me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s whale and bowl of petunias. In its early chapters Lagoon also resembles a caper story, maybe by Donald Westlake: It has a big and often eccentric cast, all with their own agendas and attitudes towards the central McGuffin, drifting through each other’s stories and occasionally converging in one place to bemuse each other.

These days it takes me a while to read a science fiction or fantasy novel; I keep stopping and starting. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the books I’m reading, but the genres have made me gun-shy. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I find most recent SF depressing and I’ve been conditioned to expect something awful to happen in any given book. No matter how well an SF novel is going, I’m never quite convinced that there won’t be a massacre in the next chapter. This is how I read Lagoon at first, too. In this case my apprehension might have been enhanced by the entire history of the aliens-on-earth trope. These situations never seem to end well. Half the time the aliens are invading monsters as made famous by The War of the Worlds. If the aliens are friendly, then the humans will be paranoid and fearful and the lesson will be that the real monsters are us.

But the occasional tense moment aside, the meeting of humans and aliens goes smoothly. And maybe that’s partly because Lagoon’s magic realist side is nudging it away from the standard tropes of the alien visitation genre: there are larger powers looking out for everybody. But mostly Lagoon is one of those books where most people mean well and the ones who don’t aren’t all-powerful.


  1. For me A Game of Thrones symbolizes everything wrong with science fiction and fantasy in the 21st century.  ↩

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club, collections of fantastic tales by a once-forgotten Soviet writer, were two of my favorite books from the last few years. So it’s odd that I just last month finished the third volume, Autobiography of a Corpse. Or maybe not; it didn’t rock my world to the extent the last two volumes of Krzhizhanovsky did. Not that it wasn’t good. It just feels less new. I’ve now read enough of his stories to notice when he repeats himself. His themes and tics are familiar: loss of identity, negations, anthropomorphized ideas, the word “I” used as a noun. Most interesting writers circle back to the same wells, and that’s not a problem as long as they ring interesting changes on their preoccupations. It’s just not as revelatory.

Cover of Autobiography of a Corpse

Still, there are good stories here; all that’s lost for me is the element of surprise. “The Collector of Cracks” deals with a mad scientist who discovers that time is made of discrete moments separated by “cracks,” like the lines separating frames of a film. In “Yellow Coal” another scientist discovers a way to generate electricity from meanness and spite. In “The Unbitten Elbow” a man’s obsession with biting his own elbow becomes a media phenomenon and sparks serious philosophical debates. In “Bridge Over the Styx” a supernatural frog proposes “a bridge suspended between the eternal ‘no’ and the eternal ’yes,” allowing the dead to mingle with the living.

What struck me this time around was how Krzhizhanovsky uses anthropomorphism. He writes about objects and ideas like they’re characters: A scholar writing a dissertation on “The Letter ‘T’ in Turkic Languages” tells how “the bustling ‘T’ would go exhausted to bed, usually under a bookmark” at the end of a work day; the elbow-biter’s manager portrays the elbow as equal contestant in a wrestling match, at the end of every show declaring the elbow a winner.

At the same time, many of Krzhizhanovsky’s characters admit to feeling as though they’re ideas, human abstractions losing themselves in the cracks and seams of the world, like the “0.6th of a person” imagined by the narrator of “Autobiography of a Corpse.” The nameless narrator feels dead in life, and knows his disconnection from humanity is leading to his actual death, but he’s cheered by the thought that he’ll live on as an indelible ghostly image in the mind of the inheritor of his manuscript: the next tenant of his apartment. As a figment, he feels more alive than ever.

Fans call science fiction the “literature of ideas”–somewhat ridiculously, since you’d be hard-pressed to find interesting literature of any genre that doesn’t contain ideas, but we’ll let that pass. They mean that SF is writing in which the ideas are as important as the characters, or are even written about as though they are characters. Krzhizhanovsky takes this to the limit: in Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, ideas and people are interchangeable, and can go back and forth from one state to the other, like the living and the dead traveling the bridge over the Styx.