Category Archives: Speculative Fiction

Science fiction and/or fantasy.

Philip K. Dick, Ubik

There are writers I count among my favorites even though if I made a list of my favorite books nothing they wrote would be on it. Philip K. Dick is one of those writers. I like his tone, the off-kilter feel of his writing, like he’s not bothering to smooth over the points where his world doesn’t join up properly. It matches the bemusement I’ve always felt when reality itself seemed too random or silly to believe. The real world doesn’t always join up properly, either.

The idea of Dick’s writing was a big influence on me even though I can’t honestly say he ever wrote a book I particularly loved. On my scale none of his novels rise past very good to great, unless it’s the imaginary Platonic ideal Dick novel he never quite wrote. Then again, a hypothetical perfectly artful Dick novel it might not have had what attracted me to his work in the first place: his “let’s just throw stuff in there, why not” attitude.

Cover of Ubik

Take Ubik. Joe Chip lives in the far-off world of 1992. Everything is coin-operated including Joe’s front door, which argues like one of the doors from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ensembles like “a cowboy hat, black lace mantilla, and bermuda shorts” or “a floral mumu and Spandex bloomers” are the height of fashion–Ubik introduces everybody by describing their ridiculous clothes. Joe’s employed by an agency for “inertials,” psychically powered people who counteract other people’s psychic powers. Joe hires a new inertial who counters precognition by traveling back in time to change the present. Meanwhile Joe’s boss Glen Runciter is losing touch with his dead wife, who helps run the company from cryogenic “half-life,” because the teenager a few crypts down keeps breaking into their conferences. Joe and Runciter travel to the moon with some inertials for a job but their contact turns out to be a talking robot bomb; Runciter dies. So Joe carts him back to Earth to be put in half-life. But Joe’s coins spontaneously acquire Glen Runciter portraits, food and cigarettes decay, gadgets turn into worn-out obsolete equivalents, and eventually the world around him becomes Des Moines in the 1940s. More worryingly, his intertial pals are spontaneously mummifying. Then Joe starts getting messages from Runciter directing him to look for something called Ubik that will solve all his problems…

Ubik is full of weird little side details that didn’t have to be there. Like, one character has a nightmare that’s invaded by a couple of psychics, and it’s genuinely disquieting but could just as easily have been cut. And there’s no reason at all for those weird clothes. But Dick must not have felt everything needed a reason. He had so many weird ideas he could just toss them around like glitter.

Dick is not among the great prose stylists of science fiction. He’s abupt, shambolic, and pulpy. Not that he can’t deliver moments of beauty or grab you with whatever emotion he wants you to feel; at times you can tell he put in the work. But the bulk of most Dick novels have this “just bang it out and send it off, I’m on a deadline here” vibe.

There’s the aforementioned scene in Ubik where Stanton Mick, who wants to hire the inertials, suddenly inflates, floats, and explodes. Ubik just says “Stanton Mick floated to the ceiling of the room, his arms protruding distendedly and rigidly” in the same tone it might use to describe Stanton walking across the room. The bomb is just there. And without much in the way of context: “‘I’ve heard of this,’ Runciter said to Joe. ‘It’s a self-destruct humanoid bomb. Help me get everybody out of here. They just now put it on auto; that’s why it floated upward.’” This is astonishingly casual. Runciter doesn’t sound shocked; neither he nor the narrative react like he’s in immediate danger. This casualness is typical of Ubik. When Joe discovers his pocket is full of Glen Runciter money it is at first just another aggravation at the end of a long and trying day. I mean, yeah, he knows it’s weird. But it’s the same kind of weird as ordering coffee and getting it already cold. Joe’s not immediately questioning everything he knows about reality, is what I’m saying.

Standards for what’s considered well-crafted in genre fiction are always changing. Today, a respectable SF novel builds up to the scenes on which the plot hinges. Forshadows the big reveals. Changes the prose style and pacing to suit sudden bursts of action. Artfully slips all the explanations the reader needs into the background as it goes.

Ubik… uh, doesn’t. Ubik is more like the pulp stories Raymond Chandler ruefully looks back on in “The Simple Art of Murder”:

…the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.

Philip K. Dick is one of those “have a man come through a door with a gun” writers, only the guy he sends through the door has psychic powers and takes a bite out of the hero’s arm. Dick’s main virtue as a writer is that he’s not afraid to over-reach himself.

And, weirdly, his stylistic awkwardness helps. That humanoid bomb scene I described above is, technically, not well written. But Dick brilliantly captures the feel of dreams. Not the bluntly metaphorical dreams you often get in fiction, like writers use when they can’t think of a good way to work in a theme. I mean actual dreams with their arbitrariness and disjointed shifts. (Dick has a lot in common with David Lynch, here.)

Like… you’re in a meeting, and a guy floats up to the ceiling. And you suddenly know, the way dreamers suddenly know things, that the guy is a bomb. And all of this–the meeting, the floating man, the sudden knowledge–feels normal. Dreams don’t divide the banal from the unreal. You’re in one situation, then you’re in another. That’s how Dick writes in his pulpy “just get things down” mode. Moments other novels would build up to, make a big deal of, Dick describes matter-of-factly. Like the way Magritte undramatically, naturalistically painted a man with an apple for a face. So much of the hallucinatory quality of Dick’s novels comes from the contrast between his wild, prolifgate imagination and his straightforward delivery.

Dick’s style joins hands with his love of surrealism, and his flaws become virtues. I have no idea whether this was intentional on Philip K. Dick’s part. Whether it was or not, I think it’s brilliant.

This is not to criticize craft. As Chandler goes on to say of his years in the pulps: “As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better.” A well-crafted novel, all else being equal, beats a poorly-crafted one. It’s just that Dick’s writing, because of his particular, peculiar, circumstances, breaks the rule. When bad writing successfully creates an effect, intentionally or not, it’s no longer bad. It follows that any prose can be good prose–if only it’s used for the right job.

Mosaic Novels: Datura

One of my favorite authors in the last couple of years has been Leena Krohn. I haven’t yet written about her work here. This post is an excuse to correct that. It’s another in my series on mosaic novels–again, I’m defining this as novels made of vignettes that build up to a cumulative theme instead of a single plot. The last two posts covered The Book of Disquiet and Speedboat which, at least on the surface, aren’t structured much like Krohn’s novels. She writes full-length chapters, with titles, usually chronologically ordered. But the chapters in Krohn’s novels work like those novels’ vignettes. Every chapter could stand as an individual unit of writing. But they aren’t stories as such; again, they read more like essays or descriptions of situations.

Krohn’s novels pick a theme and approach it from different angles, with different strategies. So Tainaron: Mail From Another City, a novel composed of letters from a human living in a city of insects, includes chapters centered on metaphors for life in human cities, others anthropomorphizing actual insect behavior, and others just focusing on the strangeness of Tainaron to convey the feeling of living as an expatriate.

Cover of Datura

Tainaron is Krohn’s best novel, but my favorite is Datura (or a Delusion We All See). Datura’s narrator is the editor and entire staff of The New Anomalist, a low-rent Fortean Times knockoff, the seriousness of which is indicated by the fact that its owner wants its gift shop to sell Big Mouth Billy Bass. As she runs around interviewing cranks and crackpots, the datura she’s taking for her asthma is making her hallucinate. Some chapters describe her research. Some are interviews with people who believe in strange things–plant intelligence, trepanation, the face of Jesus manifested in cheese–which are gently mocking but not scornful. Datura is compassionately interested in these people’s conceptions of reality. Other chapters describe the narrator’s hallucinations: an old woman who’s always ahead of her, a candy shop that seems out of its time. Sometimes it’s not clear what kind of chapter we’re reading. At one point the narrator is passed by a column of empty cars which she later learns were a convoy of real driverless vehicles.

There’s not much plot. The narrator starts taking datura and then stops. We know where this rudimentary story is going from the first chapter. But all of her experiences together–character studies of crackpots, different views of reality, musings about how human beings see patterns and create meaning, datura-induced breaks with reality–all these self-contained scenes, equally important, build to a larger theme. It’s an interesting one, because although Datura’s themes–science, skepticism, anomalies, the nature of reality–are familiar in SF, especially since the heyday of The X-Files, Datura approaches them from a different direction than usual. On the questions of whether plants can think or angels exist, Datura comes down on the side of skepticism, but it’s pro-rationality for a reason that in a lot of SF doesn’t get much play: it’s important to understand the world because we live in it with other people, together. To connect with others we need some common frame of reference, however tenuous. “The truth is always shared. A reality that belongs to only one person isn’t real.” Datura has empathy for its cranks because reality connects us even to people who don’t believe in it.

A traditional plot would not have suited Datura. A strong plot would need an active protagonist with a defined goal, and an antagonist to stop her getting it. A plot would turn Datura’s focus inward onto the protagonist instead of outward to the world around her. There’s nothing wrong with that–obviously, lots of strongly plotted novels are great! But it wouldn’t be this novel.

Leena Krohn’s novels have narrators instead of protagonists; they watch, listen, and think more than they act. Her chapters build on each other and develop ideas and characters. But they work more through accumulation and association, less through the cause and effect of traditional plotting. Her books combine the best parts of essays–a focus on ideas, looking out from the self instead of in at a protagonist–with the novel’s ability to explore character and approach themes through metaphor.

Jacqueline Koyanagi, Ascension (and Starship SF)

I haven’t accomplished much in the last month because the news has had me genuinely stressed out. 2016 has had far too much news, most of it alarming, and I’m trying to back away from following it obsessively. In part that means getting back to writing and drawing, as a distraction. So I finished roughly two thirds of this review in early June and the rest just now; if it seems disjointed, there’s your reason.

Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension, a space opera novel, came out a few years ago. I read it recently, having chosen it at random. It’s not bad. It’s not perfect, either, but it meets and exceeds my baseline criteria for “good.” For about half this post I’ll explain further; then, as is my habit, I’ll use this book review as an excuse to wander off on a tangent: What is starship-crew space opera (of which this is an example) usually doing? Why is it more common in media SF than in print? And what do fans get out of it?

Ascension is narrated in first person by its protagonist, Alana Quick. The prose is good; it’s clear this book has paid some attention to word choice. Like, in this world starship mechanics are called “sky surgeons,” and Alana describes her work as “stitching together humanity’s lifeline.” Which tells you Alana sees ships as living organisms, and thinks of her work less as engineering than as lifesaving medicine. Alana’s complex enough that when she did something crazy impulsive–as she does more than once, because that’s her personality–I never lost patience.

Her first impulsive decision is to stow away on the starship Tangled Axon. She wants a job. More importantly, she wants to know why the crew were hired to deliver her sister to the big Wal-Mart-meets-Google corporation that literally travelled from a parallel universe to dominate the run-down local economy. The Tangled Axon’s crew is not thrilled to find Alana in their hold, but for now they’re stuck with her because shortly thereafter everyone’s framed for blowing up a planet.

Ascension is about a starship crew accepting a new member and might appeal to the same audience that liked the similarly themed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I don’t think Ascension is as successful a novel because its world doesn’t feel as complete or lived in as The Long Way’s. The Tangled Axon’s crew rarely interact with anyone outside the main cast. Granted, they are fugitives, and their isolation adds extra complications since Alana is chronically ill and running out of medication. But it feels like the characters live in a bubble, or a movie with a limited budget for speaking parts. The one person they seek out for help tidies herself away by dying as soon as she’s told them what they need to know. Even the big villain is, in a sense, part of the family.

Ascension’s universe is a backdrop in front of which the characters work out their relationships. Despite the presence of generic cargo crates I’m not sure I understand how the Tangled Axon earns a living when it’s not having an Adventure. And although Koyanagi tries, the crew don’t seem to react to the destruction of an entire planet with the warranted level of blue-screen-of-death horror. On the other hand, another story with this flaw is the 1977 film Star Wars, which I’ve heard has done well for itself. On the other other hand, having only recently finished Ascension I already cannot recall how destroying a planet fit into the villain’s master plan.

Anyway, that one thematic parallel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet started me thinking about Starship SF, and the kinds of stories it tells. Starship SF is the space opera subgenre that brings together a disparate bunch of characters and watches them mess about in a starship. Starship SF novels exist, including Ascension and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but the best known examples are TV series–Farscape, Firefly, Red Dwarf, Blake’s 7, Star Trek. These shows like to tell different kinds of stories in their individual episodes. But it’s arguable that their overall series-long stories are, at least in part, about found families or families of choice.

Starships are central to space opera TV shows in a way they usually aren’t in novels; they have a budgetary incentive to set as many scenes as possible on their standing set. (One redemptive reading of Ascension’s lack of interest in the universe beyond the Tangled Axon is that its insularity mirrors Starship SF’s affection for the bottle episode.) A spaceship is a terrarium floating in a void, by necessity an enclosed, self-sufficient world. The crew can’t leave because beyond the walls is airless vacuum–literally nothing. Stick some random people in this situation and it can go one of two ways. One is horror, the breakdown of a miniature society under pressure, as in the movies Alien or Sunshine. The other, more suited to a series, is for the crew to come together as a community. Or a family. Starship crews can be metaphors for either, or both, which is where the consolatory element comes in. These communities, like families of choice, at least aspire to work out their problems and make a safe space for all their members.

I spent the last year re-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I hadn’t seen in ages. Coincidentally the blog Vaka Rangi by Josh Marsfelder reviewed the series episode-by-episode at around the same time, so I followed that as well. Gene Roddenberry thought of ST: TNG as utopian SF: the Federation is a post-scarcity society where nobody’s poor because anyone can get whatever they need from a replicator; everyone values self-improvement over money and status. In his reviews Marsfelder repeatedly suggests that, yeah, ST: TNG is utopian, but it’s not the Federation that’s the utopia–we don’t know how the Federation works[1], and the Enterprise often has to fix situations the Federation’s screwed up. The Next Generation’s utopia is the Enterprise itself, because the crew models better ways to resolve conflicts than the truculent posturing passing for drama in grittier SF. The crew, and whatever guest stars have shown up this week, are stuck with each other. If they can’t keep the Enterprise community functional while they’re between planets… well, leaving is more complicated than opening an airlock and walking away. The characters have their differences but The Next Generation’s focus is on how they work them out and come to understand each other.

In written science fiction space opera and military SF are so closely linked they’re often conflated, but that’s not the path The Next Generation took. Yeah, Starfleet looks like a military organization–they have ranks and uniforms–but it’s unlike any military we know. The characters rarely relate to each other like soldiers in a disciplined chain of command. (The episodes where The Next Generation modeled itself on military drama were usually the ones where the show went off the rails.) The Enterprise feels like an office staffed by close and supportive employees. More than that: the bridge crew relate to each other in a way that feels as close as a family. And they really do appear to be each others’ primary family: Star Trek did not have an unlimited recurring cast, so most of the crew have just one or two literal relatives. The only one with an American-style nuclear family is Chief O’Brien.

Most televised Starship SF resembles ST:TNG in that their long-term emotional arcs are about disparate people forming family-style emotional bonds. Firefly is about people who initially don’t understand each other becoming a family. Farscape is about people who initially don’t understand each other becoming a family. Red Dwarf is, despite Arnold Rimmer’s best efforts, about people who initially don’t understand each other becoming a family. Even the Blake’s 7 crew feels a bit like a family, though they’re a dysfunctional one and the series ends in a messy divorce.

You might, if inclined, divide ensemble TV series into two broad groups: the edgy ones, spectacles of people ingeniously betraying and undercutting each other (A Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica, House of Cards), and the consolatory ones whose characters support each other and come together to solve problems. Whether these ensembles are SF like ST:TNG, crime dramas like Leverage, or even sitcoms like The Simpsons or Community, the ways the characters relate to each other feel similar. Their emotional arcs take familiar routes regardless of genre. Either a character is emotionally tied up in the A plot (Worf’s family is caught up in Klingon politics, Starfleet wants to disassemble Data), or the B plot is about someone working through emotional issues that tie into the A plot thematically (Data wants to understand some human foible, Barclay is working on his psychological issues). The rest of the cast help them through their problem to an emotional epiphany.[2] Scenes where Geordi explains humanity to Data or Picard works through an ethical dilemma with Guinan aren’t all that different in function from the part of a Simpsons episode where Marge Simpson inspires Homer to briefly locate his better side. You could drop the characters from another ensemble show (maybe not The Simpsons, but certainly Community or Leverage) into a Star Trek show and the usual styles of Star Trek stories would still make sense in a way they would not make sense with, say, the characters from A Game of Thrones.

It’s significant that which plot is the A plot and which is the B plot is not always clear. On Star Trek shows–Voyager in particular–it isn’t unusual for an episode’s external threat to be a vague pseudoscientific problem resolved through perfunctory technobabble, with more running time spent on the character interactions that, structurally, might be some other show’s B plot.

Literary space opera usually doesn’t work like Starship SF TV shows; most starship-heavy novels are Military SF, or thrillers. Maybe that’s because a novel is, like a movie, a one-off event; even if it’s part of a series you’ll probably have to wait a year for the next volume. Starship SF audiences aren’t into plot so much as regular contact with their favorite characters. They want to see what the gang is up to this week.

Not that space opera fans don’t enjoy suspenseful action, special effects spectacle, and clever problem-solving, but in these series the chance to watch allies or co-workers becoming friends and friends becoming family is an important attraction. Starship SF is consolatory and aspirational, and I mean that in a positive sense. There’s a certain escapist pleasure in just watching a bunch of friends hang out.[3] To that extent, most of SF fandom’s favorite shows push the same emotional buttons for their fans as a show like Friends does for its audience. Mind you, I’m not saying Star Trek and Friends are interchangeable. The stories and themes they explore in addition to the weekly dose of camaraderie are different, and have different functions; if that weren’t true, they wouldn’t have different audiences. But they do both have that weekly dose of camaraderie, and it’s a point where their audiences have something in common. SF fans who write fan fiction love having their favorite characters just plotlessly hang out together; there’s even an entire subgenre transplanting characters from different settings into 21st century coffee shops.

I’ve wandered far from my original point here. But I think Ascension would appeal to the audience I’ve just described, who might find the characters’ non-involvement in the outside world to be as much a feature as a bug. Sometimes insularity is privilege or self-absorption. But sometimes it’s just that the outside world is the B plot.

  1. This vagueness makes the Federation more convincingly utopian–the more details you give about a utopia, the more likely it is that the audience will decide some of those details don’t sound all that great.  ↩

  2. On ST:TNG helping resolve emotional arcs was literally Troi’s job, which just makes it weirder that the writers so often had no idea what to do with her.  ↩

  3. Or even just watching the extras: when I rewatched ST:TNG one of my favorite parts was watching the people in the background, who were more visible now that I wasn’t watching on a 19-inch screen with bad reception.  ↩

The Clomping Foot of Orbis Tertius

(Edited to add: oddly, my RSS feed seems to be having trouble with the o-with-an-umlaut character that should go in Tlon. Please excuse the misspelling.)

So… as I said in my last post (oh so long ago now), recently I reread Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” after it turned up on the shortlist for the Retro Hugo awards, juxtaposed with pulpy stories by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Leigh Brackett. Which, I grant, seems incongruous.

It’s possible to argue–I’ve seen arguments made, anyway–that salting a SF shortlist with classic literature is a dubious move. That such a list might simply be grabbing at cultural respectability, poaching a work that came from outside the SF tradition and therefore doesn’t really belong with it. What’s interesting about this argument is that it could just as easily come from people skeptical of genre fiction, or from genre fans who resent “literary” fiction and insist the beloved pulp of their childhoods is just as good as–no, better than–the books their ninth grade English teacher forced them to read. I would refuse to belong to these groups even if they were willing to have me as a member.

Genre is just a tool for describing what fiction is doing. Any interesting fiction does more than one thing, and might be grouped with any number of genres. The people of Tlon assume all books are the work of one all-encompassing author, whose mind they reconstruct by juxtaposing such wildly dissimilar volumes as the Tao Te Ching and the Arabian Nights; we probably shouldn’t go that far. But no laboratory test in existence can establish definitively how much of which genres any book contains. I’d argue that anyone who can come up with an argument (reasonable or not) for putting a particular work in a particular genre should feel free to do so. The only excuses you need are “Does this make for an enjoyable argument?” and “Could putting this story next to these others lead to interesting ideas?”[1]

For those who haven’t read “Tlon,” a summary: the narrator, a fictionalized Borges, hears of an imaginary world, Tlon, referenced only in an article on a nonexistent country appearing in a single bootleg copy of an encyclopedia. Later he discovers a volume from the Encyclopedia of Tlon which gives a more complete picture of Tlon’s radically different worldview.

SF still has a lot to learn for Borges. “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” like much of his work, is a story in the form of an essay. You don’t see this much in science fiction or fantasy. I mean, yeah, there aren’t massive quantities of fictional nonfiction in general. But it’s odd that essay-stories don’t turn up much more often in SF, because the format suits SF so well. Some strains of SF just want to build worlds, or speculate about new technologies’ effects on society, and these are too often the ones with clichéd plots and flat characters. Maybe these stories authors’ only cared about (and, incidentally, had the right sort of talents to deal with) the ideas that weren’t related to plot or character… but, not realizing that fiction didn’t have to be conventionally plotted and narrated, they bolted on perfunctory plots and characters about which they felt no real enthusiasm. A lot of golden-age-style engineering problem stories would benefit from being written as fake journal articles. A lot of epic fantasies would be better off as fictional travel writing in the vein of Leena Krohn’s Tainaron or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes. Still, not many essay-stories turn up in Best SF collections; in genre the only writer I can think of who embraced the form enthusiastically was Stanislaw Lem, whose A Perfect Vacuum (which includes a nod to Borges) and Imaginary Magnitude collected reviews of, and prefaces to, nonexistent books.

“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” uses its essay format to build a world in a small space. Worldbuilding is core to science fiction and fantasy, but it’s often seen as a distraction, an invitation for geeks to vanish down their own navels; M. John Harrison famously called it “the great clomping foot of nerdism”. (For the opposing view, see China Miéville.) “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” leans toward Harrison’s vision of worldbuilding as toxic labyrinth–but more on that later.

I sometimes agree with M. John Harrison, but I think there are different kinds of worldbuilding. One kind, the kind that can seduce a writer into compiling a thousand-page wannabe-Silmarillion recording the undistinguished deeds of indistinguishable gods and heroes, is boring. But I think other kinds are relevant to creating worlds with a sense of life, and characters who seem to live as citizens of those worlds instead of using them as sketchy backdrops for narcissistic protagonisting. One concerns itself with the material conditions of people’s lives–their food, their jobs and pastimes, their plumbing. Another, the kind of worldbuilding Borges is doing here, is concerned with how people in this imagined world think–not so much their surface opinions as the underlying philosophies and fundamental beliefs. What makes them tick.

The Tlonites tick differently. Their worldview resembles the “subjective idealism” proposed by the 18th century philosopher George Berkely: Tlon denies that material reality exists. Instead there are actions and perceptions. Tlon’s languages have no nouns; one is composed entirely of verbs, another of adjectives, which they use to describe objects, which exist only when perceived. Tlon’s geometry insists that a moving person modifies the forms that surround them, its mathematics claims that counting changes an indefinite number into a definite one. In Tlon, ideas make things: the desire to find a lost object, or even the hope to find something previously unknown, can create new objects called hronir. In Tlon science and philosophy are more games than searches for truth. The point is to construct arguments that come to interesting conclusions.

In the final section of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, ostensibly written seven years later, we learn about the secret society that invented Tlon at the behest of a rich American who wanted to prove God wasn’t the only entity who could create worlds, dagnabbit. The Encyclopedia of Tlon, it turns out, exists in its entirety.

Which brings us back to M. John Harrison’s suspicion of worldbuilding. When I looked up that famous “clomping foot of nerdism” quotation I was struck by a passage that seemed to resonate with Borges’s story:

It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

The Orbis Tertius group releases the entire Encyclopedia of Tlon into the wild, along with a handful of artifacts apparently from Tlon. Now Tlon is everywhere, more inescapable than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The public devours Tlon’s history, adopts Tlon’s culture. Schools teach Tlon’s languages. It’s what everyone on the internet is writing inane thinkpieces about. Everybody loves Tlon because Tlon is simple. Bizarre, yes. But Tlon is the product of human minds, so can be completely contained in and comprehended by human minds–unlike the infinite, complex, accidental, ultimately unknowable real universe that produced the minds that produced Tlon. In a few years, Borges speculates, the world will be Tlon.

So, worldbuilding. What’s it for? Potentially lots of things. I think a lot of them are good. Worldbuilding can create just the right environment to make a story work. Stories of other worlds can show readers other possibilities, good and bad; other ways of thinking or arranging societies. I’m even sympathetic to worldbuilding as consolation, providing imaginary places to daydream about. If occasional escapism helps someone exist in the world, I’m not one to sneer. (There’s a Lynda Barry quotation that turns up a lot on the internet: “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.”)

But in these worlds some people find consolation of another, stupider kind. Science fiction and fantasy, the genres most concerned with worldbuilding, are beloved of geek culture, which in the 21st century is mainstream culture. (See: Marvel Cinematic Universe, inescapableness of.) See, geek culture has this pathology–well, geek culture has several pathologies, but this essay is concerned with just one. Geek culture has a habit of relating to its favorite fictions, especially franchises and expanded universes, through a kind of obsessive collector mentality. Not collecting things, collecting facts–fictional facts, at least. Memorizing every detail of the history of Middle Earth, knowing exactly which issue of X-Men each character was introduced in, remembering the name and personal history of every alien in the Star Wars cantina.

Which sounds harmless, but leads to so many annoyances. Like, any discussion involving a pop culture phenomenon, something like Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes, stands a nonzero chance of getting derailed by obsessives arguing over canon: which fictional facts fit with all the other fictional facts, and which have to be thrown out? I’m usually the first to argue that any critical approach can lead to an interesting conversation regardless of how generous you have to be to describe it as a “critical approach,” but even I must admit this stuff is tedious.

What’s worse are the geeks who form in-groups based on obsessive cataloguing, and resentfully police their boundaries with trivia. You’re not a proper fan unless you’ve read all the right science fiction novels,[2] or agree that the animated Star Trek series isn’t canon, or like the right version of Doctor Who. Women in particular seemingly can’t show interest in geek culture things without being quizzed on trivialities by tedious nerds hoping to expose “fake geek girls.”

And then there’s the way any remake, addition, or slight change to any media franchise brings man-children crawling out from under their rocks crying that their childhoods are being ruined.[3] And we have to put up with this nonsense constantly, because the studios that control 90% of American pop culture have run out of ideas and produce nothing but remakes, additions, and slight changes to franchises. As I write this the internet is up in arms because what appears to be a perfectly inoffensive remake of Ghostbusters happens to star women. It’s exactly as tiresome as turning on the radio and hearing the overplayed single you’re most sick of.

So why does this subset of geekdom treat exhaustive surveys of places that aren’t there with a seriousness normally reserved for nuclear nonproliferation treaties? Why the pathetic overreactions?

You might as well ask why everybody in Borges’s world is obsessed with Tlon. Exhaustively surveying a place that isn’t there is exactly the kind of worldbuilding Orbis Tertius does. As M. John Harrison notes, a literally exhaustive survey of the world would be too big for anyone to comprehend in its entirety. Reality contradicts itself, and it keeps changing–tripping people up with new facts. And, let’s face it, reality has terrible continuity. Like, the characters in the “United States” spinoff are supposed to be incredibly afraid of terrorism, but nobody does anything about the mass shootings happening every other day. What sense does that make? Something here isn’t canon! And then there’s that “quantum mechanics” business, which the writers are obviously making up as they go along. And don’t get me started on the way they keep randomly killing off major characters!

Tlon is orderly. Tlon can be catalogued, managed. Tlon can be mastered. The real world is confusing, but with Tlon the fans can feel like they’re in control… At least until Orbis Tertius decides to rewrite Tlon. Or add some new characters. Or remake it with a non-nerd-approved cast. That’s when the panic sets in.[4] The fans, tripped up by new facts, this formerly managable system out of their control, have to face the fact that they’re not masters of anything at all.

Borges identifies the impulse that drives people to Tlon–the desire to simplify and tame the universe–with the impulse that drove people to fascism and totalitarianism. When I look at the grimier edges of nerd culture I’m not sure he’s wrong. Note, again, how much of the behavior I’m describing is bound up with defining and expelling out-groups, and with sexism in particular–whining when the SF canon lets in authors from marginalized groups, refusing to accept the new, diverse characters added to their treasured franchises. There’s some irony in the fact that science fiction, a genre full of stories about opening minds, discovering new things, and accepting the alien, has fans terrified of the new and different in real life… but fictional difference and novelty are under control, and that’s how they like it. Imagine a nerd foot clomping on a human face–forever.

I have no solution for any of this. Neither does Borges in his story; he just does his best to take no notice. Maybe he has the right idea. There are styles of worldbuilding that don’t pander to obsessives and can handle glitches with grace; there are fictional worlds where two planets can have the same name and Atlantis can sink three times without falling apart.[5] Let the Tlonist geeks freak out whenever their authority over trivialities is challenged; I’ll be over here, actually enjoying myself. Only… maybe they could freak out where I don’t have to listen to them?

  1. Incidentally, the first place I read “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was in an anthology called The World Treasury of Science Fiction, which I read when I was young and just recently interested in SF. Like many older anthologies it had a serious gender imbalance–there were more women it could have included, if the editors had worked harder to find them–but within its limits it was a great anthology. It had lots of translated stories, some by writers I’ve never read elsewhere, and brought writers like Sheckly, Le Guin, and Bradbury together with writers like Borges and Boris Vian.  ↩

  2. Some SF fans will tell you proper SF fans should be conversant with the works of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, which is like insisting that anyone interested in English literature absolutely must read Samuel Richardson.  ↩

  3. Invariably followed by a flood of superfluous online thinkpieces noting that, hey, man-children are crying, what’s up with that?  ↩

  4. Although continuity can be rewritten in the service of Tlonism, too. The last thirty years of DC Comics constitute an endless series of increasingly baroque and preposterous attempts to force their entire line into internal consistency.  ↩

  5. My favorite media franchise, Doctor Who, has over the years has gone off in any number of mutually contradictory directions. I might get annoyed when one particular strand of Doctor Who seems to be playing narrative Calvinball, but I don’t lose sleep over the fact that different strands of the series have featured two different versions of Human Nature with two different Doctors and two different political slants. This is a show that had an episode where the Doctor had to defeat somebody wanting to set Earth’s canon in stone to better catalogue it. And yet Doctor Who fans still have arguments about canon!  ↩

Reasons for a Shortlist

(Edited to add: oddly, my RSS feed seems to be having trouble with the o-with-an-umlaut character that should go in Tlon. Please excuse the misspelling.)

Every so often the science fiction convention that runs the Hugo Awards also takes nominations for “Retro Hugos,” a Hugo Award for science fiction and fantasy works published in years before the Hugos existed. Which is great, because there’s something peculiarly appropriate about a science fiction award that retcons itself.

Anyway, this year the Hugo Awards are running Retro Hugos for 1940, and I was amused to see the lineup for Best Short Story:

  • “Martian Quest” by Leigh Brackett (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Feb 1940)
  • “Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Jan 1940)
  • “Robbie” by Isaac Asimov (Super Science Stories, Sept 1940)
  • “The Stellar Legion” by Leigh Brackett (Planet Stories, Winter 1940)
  • “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges (Sur, 1940)

One of these things is not like the others. And yet this list isn’t as strange as it seems: for all that Asimov and Borges come to this shortlist from different literary worlds, any definition of fantastic fiction that can’t encompass the works of both authors is, I think, incomplete.

On the other hand, there’s a definite difference in quality here. I was tickled enough by this shortlist that I’d thought of rereading and reviewing all the stories, but it turned out to be a dispiriting experience. The two Leigh Brackett stories are perfunctory dramas built on pulp fiction tropes old-fashioned even for 1940. “Robbie” reads like an outline for the sort of treacly animated short I’d imagine coming out of a studio with the desire, but not the talent or the budget, to compete with Chuck Jones’s “Sniffles the Mouse” cartoons. When “Requiem” turned out to be unavailable from both the public library and my personal book collection I decided not to spend time or money tracking it down; a review I found suggested it wasn’t better than my vague memories of it, anyway.

“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was, of course, still amazing, and I’m going to ramble about it a bit in a second post. But the exercise left me wondering: what are the Retro Hugos for?

That question is not rhetorical or sarcastic. I honestly think it’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer. I’m writing as an outside observer of the Hugo Awards, which are primarily nominated and voted on by the part of SF fandom that organizes and attends SF conventions. As an extreme introvert who counts any day in which I don’t have to leave the house as a success, this is very much not my thing. So I may have ideas about what SF’s most well-publicized award ought to be for[1], but I’m not particularly qualified to lecture the Hugo voters about them.

I’m definitely qualified to look at what they’re doing bemusedly, though, so let’s get on with it. It’s obvious what the regular Hugos are for: they’re supposed to honor the best SF work from the previous year. Not all the voters have the same standards for “best,” but (assuming no one is deliberately nominating crap to spoil other people’s fun) everybody agrees on the actual goal. But there’s more than one perspective from which to judge stories with 75 years of historical distance. What does “best,” mean in this context? In other words, what is this award measuring? I can think of three reasons someone might nominate stories for Retro Hugos, none mutually exclusive.

Historical reconstruction: Stories that, at least as far as anyone can tell, fans would have nominated at the time. This could be why the Leigh Brackett stories were nominated, as well as Heinlein’s “Requiem.” On the other hand, I can’t imagine many SF fans at the time would have been aware of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and I’m not convinced the aggressively twee “Robbie” would have been a popular choice. Also, looking at the whole Retro Hugo ballot, there’s a lot of Heinlein there: out of the fifteen slots under Short Story, Novella, and Novelette, Heinlein took six. And the other two slots under Novella were taken by two stories in the same series by the same authors, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, just as two Short Story slots went to Leigh Brackett. This is unusual–Hugo shortlists rarely have more than one story by the same author in the same category. The amount of repetition on the ballot suggests we don’t remember enough SF from 1940 for today’s voters to guess what fans might have nominated at the time.

Historical significance: Stories that were important to the development of the SF genre. This is probably how “Robbie” found its way onto the ballot. It’s not good, but it was the first story Isaac Asimov published in the Robot series that made him famous. This might also be one reason for “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Borges wouldn’t have been on SF readers’ radar at the time, but he’s influenced a lot of writers. And Leigh Brackett is still remembered (especially for her script work) even if these specific stories aren’t very good. But the Heinlein story is just another Heinlein story, of no special importance. The same could be said of the Heinlein stories in the other categories.[2]

Actual quality: Stories that today’s readers, with 75 years of perspective, believe deserved an award on their own merits. This is, again, a good reason to nominate “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” It’s not a reason to nominate anything else on this shortlist. Or, indeed, a lot of other things on the Retro Hugo ballot: most of the stories on that list haven’t aged well.

What’s interesting about the Retro Hugos is that the voters apparently nominated stories for all of those reasons at different times. Some of these stories are on the ballot because they’re significant, some because they’re examples of SF that was popular at the time, and some because 75 years later we still read them with pleasure. All of these are perfectly good criteria, but based on the results there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on which criteria to follow.

This does mean that the Retro Hugos aren’t quite suitable for any specific purpose. If you want a snapshot of what was popular with science fiction fans in 1940, you’re going to want to look at a subset of the list. If you want to know what SF stories from 1940 are of historical interest, you want a different, overlapping, subset. If you want to read some of the actual best fantastic stories of 1940, you want another, much smaller subset. And probably some stories that aren’t even on this list.

On the other hand, the scattershot approach does produce the kind of list where Jorge Luis Borges can rub shoulders with unabashed pulp hackwork and a cornball robot story. Maybe a juxtaposition that weird is valuable in itself.

  1. Basically I wish they were more adventurous; even when they’re not being distorted by right-wing write-in campaigns, they tend to feature a certain amount of work that’s competent but not truly outstanding.  ↩

  2. The most historically significant work in any category is “A Wild Hare” under Best Dramatic Presentation (Short). This is the cartoon that introduced Bugs Bunny.  ↩

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.


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.


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.”


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.  ↩