Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fantasy and Information Presentation

I think I need a better book-recommending system.  My usual plan is to scan the library shelves at random, picking out the titles in my preferred genres of fantasy and science fiction that seem interesting, moving to the first page if the description/blurb holds my interest, and proceeding to check out the book only if I still want to know what happens after reading the first few pages.

It's crucial to me that books past the "first few pages" test, but lately what I've brought home hasn't stood up to the "first few chapters" test.

A friend of mine once posited that perhaps he ought to only read Hugo-Nebula awarded books in the SciFi/Fantasy genre to save time and guarantee a base level of quality, and I recalled that when I brought home my most recent reading endeavor by a Nebula finalist.

So far, not passing the "first few chapters" test.  The first chapter is suitably interesting and hints at rich, deep conflicts both internal and interpersonal to be unfolded---but from then on, nothing much happens.

Since she is a nebula finalist, and since the prose itself is good, I wonder if perhaps the book is just not my taste rather than not good craftsmanship.  I am so deeply in love with the fantasy genre, but there are certain ways of going about it that don't appeal to me at all, that strike me as not-great storytelling that I wouldn't stand for if I were a fantasy editor.

This book has two features that don't gel with me.  First, like all fantasy, it has an elaborate set of alternate physics, in this case that forms the bulk of the plot, in the sense that "magic going wrong" is the antagonist, and the clever protagonists must fight through past ghosts in order to figure out what's going wrong and fix it before the world explodes.

I actually quite love fantasy because of the alternate physics, but the presentation is important.  I don't find that the story "works" for me if the alternate physics comes across as random and nonsensical and every new twist must be explained by the magic-scholar protagonist in exposition to her side-kick because what is going on and what are the implications are in no way obvious, despite being central to the plot.

This is a fine line, surely, because the whole point of alternative physics is that it isn't like the physics we the reader already know, doing it too much like our cultural magic mythology becomes unoriginal and repetitive quickly, and devoting too many pages to showing rather than telling an initiate's training in the magic system makes your series turn into Wheel of TimeShowing things that are different without ever explaining them doesn't work either, but continually showing nonsensical things and then having the protagonist tell everyone about them is neither the correct approach.

In this case, the plot starts off with a woman traveling and fighting random earth-demons and worries from her past (interesting start), and then has her arriving at a city to deal with a strange map conjuration with strange things going wrong with it, indicating very bad doom and gloom that she must then logically go and do...something, to stop. The reader just hasn't been given enough of a sense of how these things relate and make sense to get the true gravity the story is trying to convey.  I don't fully appreciate the heroism of the protagonist because I don't have any idea enough about the magic system to grasp what is so heroic about what she is doing.  My only information about this new physics is what she decides to stop and lecture to the other characters.

Second, and equally annoying is the way the back-stories of the protagonist and her sidekick hero are revealed, post earth-demon fighting.  They pretty much meet each other in a bar fight and become lovers without much preamble, and spend their evenings asking each other overly dramatic questions about their pasts. Thus you learn of their back-stories by an entire series of "tell me why you're wearing that strange amulet",  "it's complicated...but I guess I'll explain" melodrama that just gets wearying after a while.

Both of these criticisms come down to a writing axiom I once learned that stipulates that The Infodump is a weak and suspect plotting tool.  A story full of one character telling another character things, about the world, about his or herself, just fails to have the depth of a story which finds a way to bring the reader into the story.  "Show, don't tell", they say, and although in fantasy and science fiction too much showing and no telling can be very confusing, telling too often and in the same way just makes for a story that feels forced.

Perhaps I am in the minority of the fantasy audience, because wise magicians (or scientists) Infodumping is a generally accepted way to going about working through some complications in fantasy (or science fiction).  Yet surely even this type of writing is better if the right balance of watching events unfold with providing information about these events in a non-lecturing way is reached.

I've seen this balance done well by authors like Holly Lisle in fantasy and Octavia Butler (more on her later) in science fiction, who bring the characters through a combination of discovering the physics on their own and correctly pinning down and focusing on the implications of the physics that are character-based and thus recognizable to readers by virtue of common humanity.  And even though it goes on too long, the way Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time works physics and world-building into a character-centered plot worked too, and it goes on too long because it has about fifty main characters and darn it you care about all of them just as much as because he lingers overmuch on world-building.

The author of this book is a Nebula finalist, although not for this particular work, and so her use of tools I'd always thought were clumsy and amateurish reflects that, what, my dislike of them is a matter of taste instead of an adherence to good form?  Sometimes writers write bad things after they write good things, so maybe the Nebula-nominated novel of hers is better.  Either way, this one's going back to the library sooner rather than later.

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