I recently adopted a six-month-old pit bull-mix puppy from the local animal shelter. She’s sweet and loveable and very eager to please, but she was a stray and has no clue how she should behave in civilized society. Dedicated training with yummy treats pretty quickly brought her to a comprehension of “sit” and some approximation of “lie down”. But “come” is fraught with distraction. And potty training is so problematic we took a trip to the vet to make sure she didn’t have a physical cause for her inability to get the idea of going to the door to make her needs known.
Our vet of many years says there are two possibilities: either she has a bladder infection, or she’s just dumb.
Lately I’ve been struggling through a new novel by a well-known and much respected science fiction writer that makes me feel a lot like my poor dog—and I don’t mean it has given me a need for antibiotics.
I don’t read a lot of pure SF anymore. The need to keep up in romance—all subgenres—and to keep current with some of my favorite authors outside romance (like Stephen King) plus the heavy emphasis on hard science in SF today means that I usually only read it if someone recommends something. Heaven knows why I chose this one—Amazon recommended the title, and it looked interesting. I knew the author from back in the day (that’s how famous the author is). Evil, evil Amazon!
Every once in a while, too, I think it’s good to expand your horizons. You should read something you never read—nonfiction or historical romance or a Western or YA—just to give your brain a jolt. And, who knows, you may like it! That happened to me at my first RWA National conference, when I read Eloisa James for the first time. I’m an addict now, and she’s led me to other excellent historical romance writers.
So I thought I’d stretch my brain a bit with this SF novel. I was fully cognizant that this would be a workout. Serious SF usually is, conceptually, if nothing else. You have to think hard about the technological or scientific or philosophical concepts around which the book is built in order to understand what’s going on. That’s a given. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t, but thinking about it is part of the fun. I can remember books by authors like Ursula K. LeGuin, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and dozens of others that engaged the brain in just that way.
But it didn’t take long before I felt like my brain was not up to the task of reading this book. Like my puppy, I began to feel lost and clueless and dumb. Not that the book isn’t trying to help me! Oh, no! There is page after page of exposition telling me how this works and that was built, the history of this and the organization of that. Lord, I had forgotten how SF writers got carried away with that stuff. There are timelines and lists and “extracts” and notes and such to break all this up. Helpful.
Humans are enhanced in this future in various ways, so a lot of history has happened in the characters’ lifetimes. Much of it is indeed interesting, but you get the sense that you’re wandering through some obscure museum, reading the plaques over the exhibits. Nothing is emotionally engaging or seems to have anything to do with the story, which is a political mystery of sorts.
There are passages devoted to philosophical (or biochemical or astrophysical) discussion that seem to just pop up here and there. And, of course, there is the need to check your dictionary for the meaning of vocabulary words every fifth page. (It would be more often, but I’ve given up on everything but the worst of them.)
And lest you think I really am a dummy, I graduated from my private Midwestern college Phi Beta Kappa, a little factoid I don’t have to haul out very often.
So what is the point? Why don’t I just hit “delete” on my Kindle and download something more compatible? Part of is pure stubbornness—I don’t like to give up on a challenge. This is an Important Writer—a Hugo and Nebula winner—saying Important Things—his themes are ecological and economic sustainability. And, truly, there are diamonds of pure, white brilliance that may be worth all the slogging—images only this writer’s vivid imagination and keen intelligence can conjure.
But as a steady diet? No. And what’s even more important, my experience is a key to why so many readers in the romance world are unwilling to even try something with the label “science fiction” attached to it. No one likes to feel stupid. Too often the values that the SF world holds highly—intricate world-building, scientific plausibility, daring technological or philosophical concepts—lead writers to use the six-dollar word where a 50-cent word would do just fine. They wax eloquent, taking a few starry-eyed readers with them, and leaving the vast majority in the dust behind. Just one experience of being left behind is enough for most readers. They don’t want a repeat.
The challenge for those of us who want to reach a wider audience is to convince them we intend to carry them with us all the way. How to do that? Focus on the story and the characters telling that story. And let your readers feel smart.
I’ll be away from the Lounge for the next three Fridays. Enjoy your summer and I’ll be back August 3!