Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Carl Sagan

Hard science fiction, harder reading

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Contact

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What story concept or premise do you wish wasn’t explored by the person that did something with it?”

If there’s one barrier lying between most readers and an appreciation of hard science fiction, it’s that its great ideas and visionary conceptions are so often channeled through mediocre writing. I’ve tried multiple times to read Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg, for instance, which has a sensational premise—the first contact between humans and a race of intelligent microorganisms living on a neutron star with billions of times Earth’s gravity—but maddeningly pedestrian prose. Here’s a representative paragraph from early in the novel:

Jacqueline Carnot strode over to a long table in the data processing lab in the CCCP-NASA-ESA Deep Space Research Center at CalTech. A frown clouded her pretty face. The cut of her shoulder-length brown hair and her careful choice of tailored clothing stamped her at once as “European.”

I don’t mean to pick on Forward in particular, and I have huge affection for hard science fiction in general. Yet in many cases, whenever I pick up a new story, I get the sense that it would be just as satisfying to read a five-paragraph summary that dropped any pretense of drama and focused on its central big idea. (To be fair, I often feel the same way with mystery fiction, especially of the locked-room variety, which I also love.)

It isn’t hard to see why the narrative element is often lacking. Many of the masters of science fiction were scientists first and writers afterward, and the idea frequently takes precedence over the plot and characters—which might serve as a definition for hard science fiction as a whole. This may be why I’ve always felt a bit out of place in the pages of Analog, which has been kind enough to publish several of my own stories. I think of myself as a writer first, and the ideas in most of my stories are good but not especially great. They’re really there mostly to make the story possible, rather than the other way around. This isn’t an aesthetic judgment; it’s more a reflection of my own background, ability, and tastes, and while it results in the kinds of stories I personally like to read, it also limits me to a particular narrow range. I don’t necessarily have the temperament to write a story that encompasses the entire universe, and I take comfort in the fact that there are other writers more able and inclined to do so. But I imagine that even devoted fans of the genre have to admit that it’s rare to find a writer who can marry ambitious conceptions on the grandest scale with a style that carries you along for its own sake.

Michael Crichton

That’s even true of authors who have proven themselves to be capable writers in other contexts. I’ve always found Asimov’s nonfiction more engaging than his stories—although at his best, as in “The Last Question,” he can be stunning. And I don’t think I’ve ever been as let down by a novel as by Carl Sagan’s Contact. Sagan was a peerless essayist and popularizer, and the scope of the story is as big as it gets, but Gregory Benford’s original review in the New York Times accurately sums up its faults:

Unfortunately, the reader will reach the novel’s enjoyable last third only if drawn by strong curiosity and buffered by tolerance for many first-novelist vices. Characterization proceeds by the dossier method often used by C.P. Snow, with similar results—told much but shown little, we get career profiles, some odd habits, earnest details. The narrative comes to a stop while an expository lump cajoles us into finding this person interesting.

For what it’s worth, the movie version solves a lot of these problems, mostly by focusing on Jodie Foster’s Ellie at the expense of the others, and at its best, it offers the sense of awe that the novel only sporadically delivers—and which I’m hoping to see again in Chris Nolan’s Interstellar.

In fact, while it might sound strange to say it, I often find myself wishing that many of the great ideas in science fiction had been tackled by the likes of Michael Crichton. No one will ever hold Crichton up as a paragon of style, and it’s true that many of his most famous novels repurpose ideas that had been developed earlier by other writers, but at his peak, he was a superb craftsman who knew how to keep the pages turning. (Crichton was also a writer first: he published many paperback thrillers while still in medical school, and if he stuck largely to science fiction after The Andromeda Strain, it was mostly because he was so good at it.) Near the end, as I’ve said before, he was seduced by his own tools, like many of the characters in his cautionary tales, and began to put dubious messages before story, or even his own spectacular ability with facts. Even at his worst, though, he retained a relentless focus on capturing and attaining a wide popular audience, and that kind of professional, even mercenary approach is one that more writers in the genre could stand to imitate. Science fiction has countless visionaries, but what we really need are more brilliant hacks.

“An iris seemed to open on his past…”

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"Such an escape was no longer possible..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 35. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Motivation is a tricky thing. I’ve long believed that character is best expressed through action, and that a series of clear objectives, linked to a compelling plot, will tell you more about a protagonist than the most detailed account of his life before the story began. And these objectives don’t need to be major ones. To slightly mangle one of my favorite observations from Kurt Vonnegut, if a character just wants a drink of water, I’m automatically more interested in him than if I’m told that he had an unhappy childhood. My favorite example of misapplied backstory is the novel Contact, in which Carl Sagan, a man of uncanny brilliance, attempts to engage us with his characters in a way that is sadly miscalculated. We’re told that these characters are fascinating, usually through a long biographical digression, but they aren’t given anything interesting to do within the story itself—which is astonishing, given the narrative stakes involved. As no less than Gregory Benford noted in his review in the New York Times:

Characterization proceeds by the dossier method often used by C.P. Snow, with similar results—told much but shown little, we get career profiles, some odd habits, earnest details. The narrative comes to a stop while an expository lump cajols us into finding this person interesting.

These “expository lumps” are such a hallmark of bad fiction that I’ve basically excluded anything like them from my own work, sometimes to a fault. Readers of my early drafts often comment that they’d like more background on the characters, and they can’t all be wrong. As a result, I’ve gingerly experimented with introducing more backstory, usually in the form of a flashback at a point in the novel where it won’t break the narrative momentum. Backstory, I’ve found, isn’t the enemy: the problem is its tendency to draw the story off into tangents, when most novels really ought to proceed along an uninterrupted narrative line. But there are times when some additional motivation, rooted in a character’s past, can enrich the story and give actions in the present greater resonance. The test is whether what happened then enhances our understanding and appreciation of what is happening now. If the answer is no, it can safely be cut; if yes, it can be retained, but only in as unobtrusive a way as possible.

"An iris seemed to open on his past..."

The most significant piece of backstory in The Icon Thief is the death of Ilya Severin’s parents. This was an element that I added fairly late in the process, after I’d already written the first draft, and to be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. I introduced this detail because Ilya’s desire for retribution, in the original draft, was vivid but somewhat abstract: he’d been betrayed by those he trusted, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that he’d value revenge over simple self-preservation. It was while reading another thriller—I think it was Trevanian’s uneven but often excellent Shibumi—that I reflected that a more personal violation might make his behavior more credible. The trouble with killing his parents is that it’s a somewhat familiar trope, which is why I tend to underplay it in the sequels, and once I’d introduced it, I was stuck with it for what turned out to be two more novels. It wasn’t the kind of thing that could just be ignored, and it occasionally caused problems for the stories I wanted to tell, in which Ilya had to appear to come to terms with the men he hated.

Still, I think it works fairly well when introduced here, in Chapters 33 and 35 of The Icon Thief. Among other things, it allows Sharkovsky, by revealing the secret, to briefly gain the upper hand over Ilya, who can sometimes seem preternaturally imperturbable. And by deepening Ilya’s motivation, it makes the rest of the novel more believable. At the end of the chapter, Ilya escapes from the courthouse, in an action scene that is probably my favorite in the entire book—it was a lot of fun to work out the various beats, from Ilya discovering that the meeting is under surveillance to eluding the security guards to fleeing through the construction site next door, only to end up across the street from police headquarters. (The moment when he checks to make sure that the bag at the exchange doesn’t have a tracking device is directly inspired by a similar device in No Country For Old Men.) But it was important for me to establish that Ilya, having escaped, couldn’t simply decide to leave town. The backstory I provide here allows me to keep Ilya around, and on that level, it’s a good thing. But it certainly made my life more complicated…

Written by nevalalee

February 21, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2011 at 7:43 am

Posted in Books, Quote of the Day

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Backstory—what is it good for?

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Yesterday I indulged in another rant about Thomas Harris and the decline of Hannibal Lecter, which brings me to a larger problem of which all writers should be aware: the pitfalls of backstory. Before we begin, I should point out that my views on the subject are somewhat extreme, which has led to occasional disagreements with readers and editors. But after years of writing, reading, and watching film and television, everything I’ve ever seen points toward one conclusion: backstory is deadly. It’s boring, it brings the momentum of the narrative to a halt, and most damningly, it does nothing to enhance our appreciation for the characters in a work of fiction. Characters are defined by what they do over the course of the story. What they’ve done before the story begins just doesn’t matter.

There are at least two reasons for this. The first, as William Goldman points out in Which Lie Did I Tell?, is that characters—especially heroes—must have mystery. Our favorite characters in movies or literature, whether they’re Hamlet, Lecter, or Rick Blaine, leave as many questions unresolved as they answer, which is why they’re so interesting to think about. In my experience, the less we know about a character’s past, the more intriguing he becomes, provided that he’s also interesting now. Conversely, if a character isn’t engaging in the context of the story itself, it doesn’t matter how fascinating you’ve assured us he was in the past. Many writers like to introduce their characters with long biographical digressions, as Carl Sagan does in Contact, but this rarely works as intended. It’s far more important to focus on what the character does in the moment.

For proof, look no further than AFI’s list of the top 100 movie heroes and villains. Many of these characters have since been exhaustively explored in sequels, novelizations, and fanfic, but the striking thing is how little we learn about them in the films where they made their greatest impression. We learn nothing of James Bond’s backstory in Dr. No, or in any of the classic Bond films—and even in Casino Royale, a deliberate attempt to show us the early Bond, his life before the movie is left unexplored. The same applies to Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, to John McClane, and even to Atticus Finch and T.E. Lawrence. And this is doubly true of villains: there’s Lecter, of course, but even Darth Vader, who remains just a man in a mask until the end of The Empire Strikes Back. In many cases, we’ve learned a lot more about these characters since then, but with few exceptions, this has nothing to do with why we fell in love with them in the first place.

So what’s a writer to do? At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’ve made a list of my own highly restrictive rules for backstory, with the caution that these only reflect what works for me:

  1. Don’t give any backstory in a character’s first appearance. A sentence or two briefly explaining who he is and why he’s here, if necessary, is more than enough. Just slide him directly into the action.
  2. Don’t worry about motivation. As long as the character’s objective in each scene is clearly defined, you don’t need to explain how he was shaped by events that took place years ago.
  3. After the character has been established by a handful of good scenes, and his role in the story is clear, then, if you must, insert some backstory. But no more than necessary. And always, if possible, conveyed through action or dialogue, rather than through flashbacks.

One last paradox: if you’ve followed these rules, readers are going to want more backstory. You’re going to get pleas for backstory from readers, from agents, from editors. Resist them if you can. If they want to know more about a character, it means you’ve done your job as a writer. But that doesn’t mean you should give it to them. Just ask Thomas Harris.

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2011 at 9:17 am

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