Science Fiction Repair Shop: Deep In It Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-10-16 16:00:00 No comments

The Believer - The End of the Story

[Wheel of Time author Robert] Jordan’s strengths as a writer were also his weaknesses. He abhorred instrumental characters, the stock pawns of the genre, there to be set up and knocked down to move the plot along. And he hated being obvious, choosing instead to subtly foreshadow plot developments whole books in advance (then ridiculing readers who couldn’t quite put the pieces together). Most of all, Jordan loved his own creations, good and evil alike, and wrote circles around them, developing their respective psychologies and romantic entanglements at what became a laughably immersive, infinitesimal pace.

I've cited Wheel of Time as one of many examples of why fantasy (and SF) is in such a bad state: length is not depth, convolution is not complexity, and detail is not observation. (And as someone writing a fairly long, complicated and detailed SF work, I'm fully aware of how those observations could just as well be used against me. I never said I was immune to my own bullets.)

Apart from the writing itself, the biggest complaint people have about The Wheel of Time was the way it took four books to accomplish what other authors did in one. Reading this piece re-affirmed something I'd suspected (and had Adam Roberts to help make clear for me as well) — that Jordan's snail's-pacing wasn't an accident or a commission of an incompetence on his part. It was, rather, a big part of why he wrote the books in the first place: to create an immersive environment for his readers and for himself.

I get wound up about any story that requires more than one formal installment, because I always feel the act of telling the story at such length ends up eclipsing any possible merit contained in the story. An author might have many practical reasons why he stays with a given set of characters or environment — it's easier to write and sell a story in a pre-established setting, for one, which is why Star Trek, Star Wars and other SF franchise books are such consistently solid if unremarkable sellers. If you have certain things you want to spin into a story, why bother developing a whole new framework for those ideas when you can just drop them into an already-established one, stir, bake, and serve eight?

The problem with that approach is it means what ideas you do choose to treat in that fashion are that much more at the mercy of the prefab setting you've picked, both for you and the readers. It becomes harder for anything you have to say to stand on its own merits; it gets back-absorbed into something a little more flashy and distracting. Instead of talking about X, you are talking about Our Old Friends Encountering X. And in the case of existing-franchise fiction, it's Our Old Friends Encountering X And Emerging Mostly Unchanged For The Experience Because That's The Problem With Canon Continuity. These things limit one's options as much as they allegedly expand them.

Maybe this sounds like a strange criticism coming from someone who's always going on about PEOPLE THIS and CHARACTER THAT, because wouldn't the best way to examine an X be through, y'know, people we know and love? Maybe, but it might be just as effective — if not more so — to just examine X through someone we can find to be as interesting, or lovable, in their own way. And to do it in a way where the process of doing it doesn't becomes its own self-perpetuating excuse.

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