2.01.2004

does size matter?

Pandora's Star should enthrall me. I should be over the moon reading it; it's a ginormous epic of a novel, written by Peter F. Hamilton, author of the thrilling space opera Fallen Dragon and the equally ginormous Night's Dawn Trilogy. I should love it.

Instead, I'm slogging through it, attempting to keep my chin off my chest, attempting to find some redeeming quality to keep me going while waiting for Olivia to wake for her next feeding. But the words that I'd hoped would spring to mind - 'thrilling', 'exciting', 'rip-roaring', 'epic', 'fantastic' - are failing, and the word that keeps popping up instead is 'extraneous'.

Pandora's Star is filled to the brim (Brin?) with plots and counterplots, a host of characters, vast alien technologies, conspiracies that writhe like a Gordian Knot of Gordian Knots, and enough ideas on every page to keep even the most inveterate hard SF reader enthralled.

Yet it all seems so… well, 'extraneous'.

I'm not prepared to review Pandora's Star yet, as there's still hope that I'll finish the remaining four hundred pages. But it has touched upon a thought I've been having lately regarding length, popularity, and the thrust of speculative fiction.

Reading Pandora's Star, I'm struck by the similarity to the vast epic fantasies of Robert Jordan, George RR Martin, Terry Goodkind and their compatriots. And that's gotten me thinking… have we conditioned ourselves (or been conditioned by publishers) right out of appreciating shorter fiction?

I find it strikingly odd that in our current climate of cultural norms, when we are so distracted by a mass of technologies and distractions all clamoring for our attention; when everything is getting shorter and smaller, and when our need for information has distilled everything to soundbites and realtime tickertapes, that we instead take the opposite tack in our literary adventures.

It seems to me that, particularly in SFF, the saw of 'bigger is better' has been taken to extremes in the past decade. I wonder, how closely has this trend tied to the decline of the short fiction markets?

I wonder, is it the length or the girth of a novel that matters? And what happened to thrusting ability?

How is it that in a hyperactive society, longer and denser works succeed over shorter, less time-consuming works?

The question, I think, rests upon the investment that a reader is willing to apply to a work. And I think readers have been conditioned to appreciate longer, more 'bang for your buck' works. But where does that conditioning come from?

When browsing the bookstore shelves, I often find myself drawn to larger works, whether it's Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White or Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space, or George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire doorstoppers. It is not a conscious decision, but in the back of my mind, there is the little voice guiding me along: "Is this book gonna be worth the nine bucks you're gonna plonk down at the register?".

And yet, while I appreciated and enjoyed all of those novels, I also find that they are not necessarily the works I most enjoy. Rather, I find that I actually enjoy shorter works; works that require less time investment, but which pay off with tighter, more punchy prose and wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am payoffs. Books like Charlie Stross's Singularity Sky or any number of novellas produced by PS Publishing. Particularly in SFF, it isn't the length that matters; it's about how you use it.

This has always been the case in speculative fiction. Before the late 1970s, it was rare to find a novel that reached 300 pages, which was partly due to the economics of printing, but also partly due to habit and tradition. The short fiction markets were doing well, and the strength of speculative fiction lay in its ability to deliver big ideas in small spaces.

We could argue that it was the New Wave that fucked it all up, with their insistence on pesky details like 'character development' and the injection of literary style… except that doesn't explain the current doorstoppers. In Pandora's Star for instance, the characterization is thin at best, and onionskin at worst. And Hamilton continues to use the transparent prose that is science fiction's hallmark, plain jane workmanlike words used to describe Big Ideas.

Rather, I think we can point our finger at epic fantasy.

Epic fantasy, like epic science fiction, is all about plot. Plot, plot and only plot. The more plot, the better; the more tagboard characters, the better. Cast of thousands, epic journeys and more twists and turns to the storylines than an Escher print.

Readers gobble it up.

Science fiction has followed suit. More and more, we're seeing huge epic sf tales that have all the trappings of epic fantasy… because they sell. They sell, and they sell to the same people that are reading epic fantasy, and they sell just because they are BIG.

Frankly, I'm tired of it. Or rather, exhausted by it.

It takes work to read Pandora's Star, and it takes an investment of time that I, with my three children clamoring for attention, do not have. If I have twenty minutes to read, I'd rather burn through a short story; at least then I don't have to spend ten precious minutes backtracking the last fifty pages to make sure I've got the characters and plot in place before moving on. And in a big, epic novel, all those characters and plot points just seem so… well, 'extraneous'.

Worse, readers have come to expect big, extraneous novels. It is the bread and butter of their reading lives, and it boils down to perceived value.

It is that voice in the back of the mind that says "If I'm gonna spend eight bucks on a paperback, it'd better be big and heavy so I get my money's worth". And publishers are forced to feed that voice, and authors are forced to feed those publishers, so we find ourselves trapped in a feedback loop without escape. Change our reading habits? Pshaw! Write shorter novels, and hope to compete with the doorstoppers? Double pshaw! Publish shorter novels so they can be lost amid the Big Fat Ones? Triple pshaw!!!

So writers continue to fill their novels with extraneous detail, extraneous characters, extraneous plots in order to attract readers and to sell. And unfortunately, it is ultimately leading to a downgrading of speculative fiction, a regression of quality that will essentially ruin the field if left unchecked. We need more Big Ideas crammed into Small Spaces, and we need to promote those stories and writers with all our hearts. Because that is the heart of speculative fiction, and where it works the best.

And with luck, I'll finish Pandora's Star by the time its sequel comes out, offering up another 700+ pages to peruse.


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