Today I’m going to talk, more as a reader than a writer — though I’ll probably be unable to resist putting my author voice in here somewhere.
I love to read speculative fiction. Fantastic genre. I’ve said this again and again. Princess of Mars, Triplanetary, Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, The Hobbit, Dragondoom, A Song of Ice and Fire, Black Trillium, Forgotten Realms, and so very many more! To stretch things further: the adventures of young Ms Alice in the strange world of Wonderland, or of Dorothy and her friends in the great fairy land of Oz.
Lately, though, I’ve been rather disappointed in new SF. Once the genre(s) came to life in vivid and exciting worlds and adventures, not I feel as though I’m reading a textbook.
I think it harkens back to some of that discussion about show and tell in writing — you want to show things, and sometimes you tell things, and there ought to be a careful balance.
Today it gets far too carried away trying to show the world-building. Today it is not enough to, as the immortal Robert Heinlein so eloquently penned “the door irised open”. Today … I’m going to stick with the door, though it had something to do with how the ship’s engines worked or something to that effect in the book I’m drawing from here; today it would be something on this line:
The door irised open as they approached, then irised closed shortly after they’d passed through. Hank stared at it thoughtfully as they walked through and finally said, “You know … I’ve always wondered, why do our doors open like that? Didn’t they used to swing open and closed on the old wet navy ships?”
Ginny stared at him, “Well, if you’d ever paid attention in History class …”
I believe the exact quote was something to the effect of “well, as you learned in school” or similar, and as I said, they were discussing something esoteric about the ship. But regardless there then ensued a multipage explanation in dialogue. I’ve found others that spend, I wish I were lying, giving you a 100+ page history lesson on the setting before you necessarily meet the characters, and even if you’ve met the characters, it’s after the dissertation when you get to meet our good friend The Plot.
Sure, as Sturgeon said:
I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.
Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.
Sadly, however, this is no longer an isolated eccentricity of some authors. This is becoming the expectation of … well, I will admit, among science fiction readership it seems to be the desire of the fans to read something that is rather more like a textbook than a novel; but it’s leaking terribly badly into the writing advice. Of course, as always with writing advice, in remarkably contradictory fashion: “Don’t info dump” and … I really can’t recall the short and snappy way of saying it, but “explain everything“.
Personally? I find Heinlein’s approach great, or Sir Terry Pratchett best. In the former you are given a quick adjective to give flavour to the setting and the scene; it’s as taken for granted by these people that a door should iris as we take for granted it should swing (or, for those in more east Asian countries, perhaps I ought to say ‘slide’?). In the latter we might, or might not, depending how funny he can make it, a quick little footnote (or not so quick … but always funny) explaining it — Bloody Stupid Johnson was likely involved, I’d suspect.
Betimes we do need to explain things in our stories that, possibly, the characters know and take for granted that we in our world and time do not. The opening of The Hobbit is a glorious example of this (I hope Tolkien estates will pardon my excerpt):
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill – The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it – and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained-well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.
The mother of our particular hobbit… what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be at in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it). Now you know enough to go on with. As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit – of Bilbo Baggins, that is – was the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill. It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them, – and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer. Not that Belladonna Took ever had any adventures after she became Mrs. Bungo Baggins. Bungo, that was Bilbo’s father, built the most luxurious hobbit-hole for her (and partly with her money) that was to be found either under The Hill or over The Hill or across The Water, and there they remained to the end of their days. Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his makeup from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out. The chance never arrived, until Bilbo Baggins was grown up, being about fifty years old or so, and living in the beautiful hobbit-hole built by his father, which I have just described for you, until he had in fact apparently settled down immovably.
Now, it is worth noting that this seems to contradict what I said. But it’s this: in Tolkien’s case the narrator is speaking to you and I, the character telling the tale needs you to understand a creature that has become scarce and little known to the likes of us — could he have explained hobbits through the course of the narrative? Of course he could — he could have described Mr Baggins of Bag End as short and plump with his curly hair and jolly clothes, and gone on from there throughout the book. Or could he? Maybe by getting it out of the way upfront he does something in the tone of the story; now the meeting with Gandalf the Grey could go on in a manner a bit less puzzling to the audience.
It’s not wrong for your narrative to explain that which is normal in the time and place of the setting — but the explanation shouldn’t interrupt the story! Pratchett achieves this with footnotes; Heinlein and Tolkien achieve this by keeping it quite important, relevant to the bit of narrative at hand, and — above all — relatively short and sweet.
Now, to return to our door … okay, this one’s stretching it a little since it’s a door, how important is that?! Still, work with me.
The door irised open as they approached, and irised closed again after they’d gone through. Henry looked back to be sure it’d closed. In his youth, he’d been on a very ancient ship which still had swinging doors and a hull breach had yanked a hatch open killing several of his friends. These modern doors would have to be severely damaged — or fail to close — for that to ever happen again; the sight of his friends being blown into the abyss of space, though, left him a little paranoid.
See? I’m stretching. Still, if it really was important why a door would iris instead of swing, we’ve just told you; it’s safer (I am not interested in a physics argument, I was making that up as I went along).
It’s this idea that you need to clearly establish your setting. Yes, you do, but as a reader, you can give it to me in bites, pieces, and you can keep it relevant. I don’t really care how the war between the Klothorian Empire and the Numbanji Consortium started, not if the story isn’t about that. It’s enough to know that this band of shipwrecked Klothorians who washed up on a Numbanji shore are none too welcome.
Context. Always always context. An explanation is okay here, but terrible there. And, as always, keep it short or keep it … interesting. Heinlein’s old juvies would sometimes insert brief science lessons into things. It was done in a mix of the adult explaining things to the kids who were joining in the adventure on a rocket ship, and a bit of narrative explaining esoteric bits of what they were doing and why; but he kept it fairly succinct, and the most science lessony bits were to make the young reader feel a bit of a part of the preparations for this trip into space so that it seems less dull.
If it’s important, or really neat, how the engines work — couldn’t you have just made it part of, say, a paragraph description when the drive activated? It’s a time honoured SF trope to do so.
I don’t mind irrelevant and unimportant detail tossed in. It helps set the scene and to characterise the people involved. It serves nothing to tell me the door iris instead of swing — except now I’m further immersed in the realisation “this place is wholly unlike here and now”. I don’t want to read textbooks, I want to read a novel.
This is why this isn’t in my author mode, just my reader. If you want to write a novel length work by inserting several short textbooks interspersed inside a short story or novella, fine, do so. Clearly some readers will love that, and if you and they are happy, I’m happy. I’m just sad that it’s so terribly hard to find anything that isn’t that, and rather sick of writing advice everywhere that tries to turn the new, burgeoning writers into such authors; or the discussions that seem to be turning readers into such people. The classics are fine, and nice, and there’s ample supply of them I can still discover … but they are finite. I’m sad that even the 10% allowed for by Sturgeon’s Law feels like I’ve then got to dig to find MY 10% from within that. I’m not sure, but I think 10% of 10% is 1% — slim pickings.