Hawking Up Hairballs

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Charles Stross

Most writing is bad. Run-of-the-mill literature of the serious sort is usually written well enough, but it tends to be boring and unreadable. The people who write those books seem to have forgotten that there's a lot of narrative tension in Shakespeare's tragedies and that he kills his characters off as readily as they do in a James Bond movie. When it comes to the pop genres, it is most often the prose itself that stinks. The authors rely on suspenseful and exciting plots to carry their novels, and the ugly fact is that the reading public either doesn't know or much care whether or not the prose is any good. Nevertheless, in most pop genres, there are authors who write solid prose. In crime fiction, James Lee Burke comes to mind. In pop historical fiction, there's Patrick Cornwell of the Sharpe series family. Those are just two examples.

Then why is science fiction such an exception? The writing there is so often just plain bad and the stories lame. This isn't just my opinion either. A while back, I was checking out a site that was pitched to aspiring authors. There was someone there who took questions from those who visited the site. One of them was apparently from someone who had written a science fiction novel but couldn't get it published. He was asking about how to go about self-publishing. The answer was that he shouldn't waste his money self-publishing because standards were so low in the science fiction genre that, if he couldn't get it published, his book very likely wasn't any good.

That said, I've found an author who isn't bad. I know that's tepid praise, but what can I say? Yes, tepid, and he's one of the best in the genre. He's been nominated for the Hugo Award for the best sci-fi novel of the year on five different occasions. The man I'm talking about is Charles Stross. So far, I've read two of his books. In their own way, both are crime novels set in sci-fi worlds. The first, Iron Sunrise is a hard-core space opera.* I won't go into a great deal of detail, but it's set in a universe where humans have mastered the trick of traveling great distances by jumping through space-time. Hence, they've colonized many different planets in many different star systems. One population that has cropped up is transparently modeled on the Nazis. One of their member has apparently blown up a planet. The good guys have to find out who did it and stop him before he strikes again. The second, Halting State is set in the near-future where the world of massive, multplayer games hosted on the internet have merged with the real world. Someone is killed, and the good guys have to find out who did it. I liked these books well enough to read another one of Stross's novel. I think I'll try Accelerando next.

Two things set Stross apart from most of his fellow sci-fi authors. One is his black humor. More importantly though is his ability to keep up the suspense. That's something that is really lacking in science fiction. Interestingly enough, Stross is a Brit, and the Brits are apparently leading a resurgence in the genre. Among them is Richard K. Morgan, who I've also read and like. He brings a noir sensibility to the field. I also find it intriguing that, in my lifetime, so much of the so-called serious fiction has also come from Brits. (I use that term in the broadest sense. I consider anyone who writes in English, and is from the former British empire to be a Brit. For example, Salman Rushdie is a Brit, at least insofar as he's a literary figure.) American literature is generally tepid. It's too much linked to the academy, but that's a story for another day.

Anyway, I'm not going to tell you to go on out and pick up one of Stross's books. He shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath as Tim Winton, and I'm ashamed of myself for doing it here. However, if you want something light and entertaining, and think that science fiction might be the thing, Stross is a good bet.

* When I first ran across the phrase "space opera" a few years ago, I had to look it up, and I suspect that only sci-fi fans will know what it means, so here's the definition from Wikipedia. "Space opera is a subgenre of speculative fiction or science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic, adventure, set mainly or entirely in space, generally involving conflict between opponents possessing powerful (and sometimes quite fanciful) technologies and abilities. Perhaps the most significant trait of space opera is that settings, characters, battles, powers and themes tend to be very large-scale." Interestingly enough, the guy who is credited with coining the phrase was comparing certain science fiction with soap operas. You see, I told you the genre has problems.


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