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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, October 22, 2005

robot fiction

Early sunlight outside, although the area between our building and the ones next door is still plunged in shade, except for two spots of sun on a high wall.

Was awakened early this morning by the sound of a car alarm outside--the repetition of attention-getting siren noises made by a car that thinks it's been violated somehow. I have never personally known of any car alarm to be genuine--that is, to be a result of actual violation of an automobile. Presumably those occur, but all the car alarms that I've ever personally witnessed have been from cars simply parked somewhere, untouched. Maybe they're just lonely.

So, awakened at 5:00, I finally rose at 6:00. I made coffee and served it to Kimmie in bed, who propped herself on pillows to start reading the new novel she got yesterday from the library, Dead as a Doornail by Charlaine Harris, the latest in her Southern Vampire series. I came down here, opened chapter 19, and nudged it ahead by 2 pages, having to take time in the midst of writing to read my research notes about the Occupation of the Promised Land--a biblical event being reenacted by the Essenes in the period of my story.

Last night, during reading time, I decided to push on with Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain, the global-warming epic I bought a few days ago. I have read to page 100. My impression of this novel is much the same as my impression of his Red Mars: I both admire and dislike aspects of Robinson's writing, and read on, in a sense, under protest.

What I admire is his depth of knowledge of his subject matter and the verisimilitude he can create with it. When Robinson describes the work and attitudes inside a California biotech lab, I believe it. His portrait of scientists feels authentic, based on my own experience with real scientists. He likes the nuts and bolts of how things are actually done, and clearly enjoys describing these things in detail.

But this can be a problem. In comic art, a guy who liked to cram his panels with visual detail used to be known as a "rivet" because every rivet of a piece of machinery would appear. Robinson is a rivet. It is as though he has an inability or at least a disinclination to summarize. Thus we read many pages of exactly how Charlie Quibler spends the day with his infant son Joe. The material itself is well-observed and reasonably lifelike, but it's also irrelevant. If the aim is to give a strong impression of a stay-at-home dad and his unusual life in Washington, DC, this could be done with a few telling details. It should be done with a few telling details, for the reader is trying to get to the next plot-point. The reader of a story wants to know what happens next, more specifically what happens next of significance for the story.

And that's another problem: what is the story here? At page 100 I don't know any more than I did when I read the blurb on the back cover. While there are some mumblings about climate and weather in the book, what I've been shown mainly is people dealing with the hassles of their workday. I venture to say that I'm much more receptive to and interested in that type of thing than most readers, but even I need a bit of story thrown my way as a reward. We need a clearly defined problem confronting a specific character, and that character's formation of a clear intent to do something about it. That my friends is a story, and at page 100 of 393, we're not there.

This was one of my problems with Red Mars: stuff happened, even some dramatic and exciting-seeming stuff, but it wasn't a story. It was just stuff happening. Robinson's writing has a journalistic flavor; he delights (if that's the word, since his tone tends to be rather heavy and serious) in depicting situations that have much of the banality as well as interest of life, but that do not have strong underlying feeling of purpose, or going anywhere--just as in life, we usually don't have such a feeling. One day at the office is much like another.

The banality becomes most marked in the dialogue. This I feel is a distinct weakness for Robinson. He writes dialogue as though forced to, not from any conviction of its interest or utility. Many exchanges of dialogue are more banal than real-life dialogue, not less so, as they should be. Good dialogue-writing is hard, but adequate dialogue can result from having characters with strong, specific, and conflicting objectives in a scene. That dialogue will be interesting, even if it's not brilliant. Robinson's dialogue often has the quality of being mere padding in a scene; it's simply more of what happens as a day floats by. Stuff happens, including some spoken stuff.

There is no sense of an underlying myth to his story. There is something mechanical about the storytelling, as though it were composed by software, which was in turn written by very intelligent programmers who were, nonetheless, programmers. The verisimilitude is that of computer animation: strikingly real appearances that are nonetheless mere appearances. There is no depth dimension--nothing to be discovered about human nature or the spiritual condition of man beyond what can be said about these things using the concepts and vocabulary of materialistic science. There is no poetry.

But there should be. It's a work of creative writing. It's a pity, because Robinson's knowledge and ideas are much better than most writers', in my view. For that reason, so far, I'm hanging in with a fairly real-feeling world, even though that world is not going anywhere.

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  • I am learning more about how to write a story from your blog entries than I every could from books I have read on the subject or creative writing classes. Perhaps even more importantly, I am learning how to read a story, how to analyze why I do or don't particularly like it. Thank you for this; you are expanding my mind.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at October 22, 2005 10:26 AM  

  • Thanks, anonymous friend, for your words of appreciation. It means a lot to me to know that someone is benefiting from my effort.

    By Blogger paulv, at October 22, 2005 2:48 PM  

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