Monday, December 14, 2009

What I Want/Don't Want in Science Fiction and Fantasy

I've been thinking about this topic over the past few months as I've read a lot of different books and short stories in the two genres, written by a wide range of authors.

I've noticed some trends in the types of stories that I've been reading. Note that these aren't necessarily trends among authors. A talented or experienced author might try his or her hand at writing in several of the styles noted below, though I think the hackneyed style appeals mainly to people who are writing serial novels for licensed properties or else are content to rest upon their reputation for a bit and crank out some predictable books for the money.

There are two styles that I don't like in fantasy or science fiction novels. I won't bother to finish a book that clearly falls into either one of these categories. I might finish a short story or watch a film that indulges in them.

These books are distinguished by two main traits: they don't work hard at all to maintain internal consistency and they don't respect the intelligence of the reader.

By internal consistency, I mean that the authors typically posit some form of magic or technology in the setting that would have much, much broader effects on the society than they describe. They simply haven't thought it through or they have but decided that it doesn't matter.

Another problem with internal inconsistency is related to characters. Characters are placed in positions of power or influence and then proceed to act with complete ignorance of a plethora of facts that 99% of the people placed in those positions would know. This reveals itself in spaceship captains ignorant of how their vessels function, villains with no sense of economics or tactics, and characters who exist mainly to be spoon-fed details of the plot.

These factors play into not respecting the intelligence of the reader. Authors often spoon feed the reader the most basic genre concepts or plot points, often repeatedly, via the mechanism of explaining those points to inept characters. Authors also make the assumption that whatever crazy idea they come up with will simply be accepted by the reader without any rationale.

A lot of science fiction and fantasy on television and film falls into this category. This can be palatable if there's enough action or humor or visual style. But I can rarely stretch my attention to two hours of this approach. It breaks novels for me. Mike Resnick's recent Starship novels fall squarely into this category in my view, as do
most serialized novels based on popular movies or roleplaying games. There are always exceptions: John M. Ford's The Final Reflection is a very satisfying science fiction novel that happens to be set in the Star Trek universe.

I understand the reasons for this type of sci-fi and fantasy. Done with flair, it can be a good way to draw in new readers. I just don't care for it myself, because I'm not a new reader anymore. And I don't like it when recent works in this style get widely celebrated as masterpieces of the genre, because they aren't.

Literary Experiments
These are novels that tell a story in a style designed to be confusing, to shake up the reader. The most frustrating thing about these types of novels is that you get the sense that the author could write something much more satisfying and comphrehensible if they wanted to, but that they choose to be vague.

One approach is to use indecipherable language. Sometimes an author that I like will produce one of these and leave me scratching my head. Ian M. Banks's Feersum Endjinn was like that. I just couldn't labor through what the narrator was saying.

Another approach is to use a nonlinear narrative or no clear narrative structure at all. A common tactic is to present many different mysteries or paradoxes in the course of the novel and then explain none of them. Often these novels will suck you in with their clever writing, until you realize that they aren't going to provide anything resembling a satisfying conclusion, much less an explanation of what was happening in chapter four. In my view, Michael Swanwick is the master of this style of throwing out events and ideas without a care for explaining or resolving them, though I have to say that I just don't get Gene Wolfe either.

Some writers like to populate an entire novel with unlikable characters or center the novel on a main character with no discernable redeeming qualities (and I count being interesting or clever as a redeeming quality in this case). I can't think of any reason to do this with a work of fiction other than to try to upset reader's expectations and be daring in some way. M. John Harrison has done this, for example. If I get 100 pages into a book and don't care in any way what happens to any of the characters, then why am I reading it? Alistair Reynolds did this with Revelation Space, but I've found several of his other works less troubling in this regard.

As far as I can tell, writers who produce more than one book of the Literary Experiment style tend to stick with it. And it's the style I'm most likely to hate and whose practitioners most consistently leave me completely cold as a reader. They also tend to win awards, like avant garde types in any creative pursuit.

Unlike the Hackneyed style, I really can't see the point of this style of fiction outside of the short story length. If you want to be weird and obtuse for the sake of being weird and obtuse and conveying some sort of feeling, you can do that at the short story length without punishing your readers. I always get a significant whiff of arrogance from the authors who indulge themselves in this fashion.

Essentially, I believe that the point of writing both fiction and nonfiction is to communicate something coherent to the reader, and nearly all literary experiment novels fail badly on that score with me.

There's another style of science fiction and fantasy that sometimes works for me but fails at a fairly high rate due to the many pitfalls it contains.

Big Idea Obsessions
Science fiction is more prone to this than fantasy, as far as I can tell. There are really two different problems here for me.

The first type of Big Idea novel problem revolves around characters, or rather the lack of interesting, believable characters. A science fiction novel based around a big idea doesn't
have to be bereft of well-rounded, intriguing, lifelike characters that you can appreciate as a reader. But oh so many of them are. They plod ahead with cardboard characters and plots that exist only to illuminate the central concept that the author is obsessed with.

This problem has plagued science fiction stories from the beginning of the genre, for the simple reason that some science fiction readers don't care about characters. What they want is a kind of speculative, technical nonfiction disguised as fiction. And that's fine by me. I just have no personal interest in that style. Some very popular writers fall into this category for me.

The character issue can manifest in another way that it less prone to criticism but which utterly fails for me as a reader. The author might create a huge tableau of characters, each seen in a brief glimpse before the narrative moves on to other characters. The result is that as a reader I never feel a connection to any of the multitude of characters tossed onto the scene in pursuit of the Epic Narrative, such as the fulfillment of a prophecy, which in these stories is a stand-in for the Big Idea. This is the type of Big Idea Obsession approach that fantasy is most prone to, although I have seen it the science fiction of authors like Stephen Baxter and Kim Stanley Robinson, whose work draws accolades but generally leaves me cold. I like to have anchor characters who persist over the course of the narrative.

The other Big Idea Obsession problem is the Mighty Technological Gimmick that Makes No Sense while dominating the plot. Some authors come up with an idea that sounds cool but which they are either incapable of explaining or which just doesn't hold together when you look at it closely, as one might over the course of a long novel. Tony Daniels' Metaplanetary was one of the most recent such ideas I've encountered.

A related category is the Mighty Technological Obsession That is Boring or Extraordinarily Technical. When boring, the concept might work in a short story, but can't sustain a novel. Nancy Kress's Probability Moon fell into this category for me, as did Alistair Reynold's Revelation Space, ultimately. When the Obsession is Extraordinarily Technical, well, it's just over my head, I guess, because it never makes sense to me yet I suspect that to someone thoroughly versed in an arcane technical or scientific field it holds together.

Big Idea Obsessions can work for me if the idea holds together and the author surrounds it with some interesting characters.

Some writers are mainly Big Idea Obsession types, framing their stories around the exploration of one big esoteric concept. Larry Niven has both hits and misses in this style, as do Greg Egan, Robert J. Sawyer, and Wil McCarthy. Others bounce around, writing a variety of novel styles. An example would be Greg Bear, who has some excellent Big Idea Obsession novels among his output.

What I Like: Well-Crafted Speculative Storytelling
This approach includes stories that have:
  • At least one interesting, multi-dimensional fleshed-out character or side that I can care about.
  • A small group (at most) of point of view characters or a consistent omniscient viewpoint that concentrates on what happens to a fairly small group of characters. Social experiments strongly indicate that people don't make more than four to seven close friends at any point in their lives. Likewise, I don't care about the details of what happens to a dozen or more different characters in a single story or novel.
  • Good dialogue.
  • Interesting technology or magic that doesn't dominate the entire story. That sort of thing works much, much better in short stories than novels. If the concept is rich enough, with enough twists and turns to be worthy of novel-length exploration, then it desperately needs to be tied to the types of characters noted above. I don't care so much about how technology or magic affects civilization in the abstract; I care about how it affects people that I've come to care about in some way.
  • Narratives that start at Point A and end up at Point B, not Point A or Point A-2. Don't loop. Something needs to change.
  • Novels that offer some sort of resolution to the major challenges that they present during the novel. There can be dangling issues left unresolved, but if you say in the first few chapters that the immediate goal of the characters is X, then by the end of several hundred pages they had damn well better have achieved or failed to achieve X in a clear fashion.
  • Stories that don't invoke something ridiculous from out of the blue to save the characters and the author.
  • A sense of wonder and adventure. That's what I read speculative fiction for in the first place.
On the bright side, there are MANY novels like this out there. More really good books than I can read in any given year, with more being written all the time.

And I've learned that most of the writers who have produced some of the novels that I cited as examples of styles I can't stand have written other novels that I thought were great. I can't say with much certainty anymore that "I love author X or loathe author Y." This makes the idea of celebrating a particular writer a little less relevant to me. I celebrate particular stories and books and appreciate authors for having written those specific works.

Perhaps the Internet is an apt metaphor for the current state of fantasy and science fiction. Most of what is on the Internet is crap. It's still full of great stuff. Similarly, there is more bad speculative fiction (in my view) being published
and celebrated than I would have thought possible. At the same time, the quantity of Really Good Stories is also tremendous.

So it's a great time to be a fan and a reader, but that doesn't make me any less critical.

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