In which your scatterbrained protagonist makes a savage digression and talks out of his ass for a while.
Reynolds is a hard man to figure. His first two books were full of promise and
enormously entertaining to read. Revelation Space was fascinating and
immediately thrust you into a future deeply layered. It felt like a real place.
Chasm City just made it deeper and more real. Both novels have their faults.
They’re too long by a quarter, not-quite-desperately in need of some tighter
editing. Occasionally, there are some structural problems, and there’s a lot of
narrative wandering, but with books this interesting, they’re easy to ignore.
They’re less easy to ignore in the last two books continuing the story from
Revelation Space, where Reynolds just seems to give up with storytelling and
just gives us a colorless schematic of what would have happened here, had he
bothered to write it. There are still some great scenes, but I think that in
this case, his eyes got too big for his stomach, as it were. Editing again.
Or over-hasty publishing. We may never know.
So I waited until Century Rain came out in paperback, because a paid a ton for
the others, getting them in their UK editions because I was so excited by Chasm
City. Now that I’ve read it, I’m not sure whether I should have or not.
Rain is not at the level of Chasm City, but neither is it at the level of
Redemption Arc. It’s somewhere inbetween. He saves his gift for density of
description for his alternate Paris, so we never really get a feel for the
future society which feels like it should be dominating the novel. Again, it’s
too long, except at the end, where it’s too short. Information is dribbled out
in strange places, long after you’ve either figured it out or just accepted it.
People just do stuff and some people just vanish. The denouement is nice.
Economy is lacking. That, I suppose, is the whole thing with Reynolds. He
spends too many words telling parts of the story that don’t matter as much, and
is left with too few when it comes to important scenes later in the book.
Admittedly, most of my favorite books from some time ago, when books, on
average, were shorter. I don’t know what the cause is, although I suspect that
it’s the ease that electronic editing brings to the process, but longer and
longer books seem to be the rage these days. Were I to write a manifesto, it
would spend a lot of time on this. Now that there’s an apparent demand for
longer books, and writing them is easier, I think that authors need an active
disincentive to writing long novels when they really don’t need to. This book
could have been cracking at half of its length, and it isn’t Reynolds’ failing
alone. Most of the books that I read this year were padded out at least a
little, and most could have been trimmed down by major fractions either at no
loss or with significant gains in terms of clarity and narrative strength.
Perhaps editors should charge their authors by the page, weighted against their
tendency to go on and on and weaken their books thereby. I realize, of course,
that different people work best at particular lengths, and some authors can
change it up more easily than others can, but I think that my observation is
sound. It isn’t like this trend is destroying literature or anything, but it
would be really nice if we dropped this trend of nicing everything up and just
said, ‘Enough, mister. You can’t write worth a damn over 250 pages. You need
to take this novel and stuff it down into that space, or I’m not going to
publish it.’ or something. That’s a stupid example, but it just seems to
painfully plain to me that most authors, while fine writers otherwise, do not
have the particular skills necessary to take a book to extreme length. It
requires a lot of planning and discipline and ideas and, for fucks’ sake, it
takes more time than writing a shorter book. You want less crap out there?
Don’t expect 500 pages a year from someone. Some can do it. Most can’t. Those
authors who both work best at great length and also tend to agonize over their
prose are doubly stuck. The demands of the marketplace insist that they produce
at nearly a book a year, which leads to exhaustion and burnout. Of course, in
our one price fits all culture, they have to, because their books are selling
for just the same price as the guy down the road, who doesn’t give a toss if the
prose is good or not and throws down four or five thinly veiled books about the
glories of being a psychotic killer fighting a cardboard foe and banging pretty,
brainless chicks in his downtime, or the guy next door to him who produces
excreable books about sexy werewolves at an even greater rate.
Actually, he’s even worse off, because more people read those things, because
they’re easy to read. There’s no intellectual strain there, it’s just
intellectual popcorn. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It is honestly what
most people want. I have this sneaking feeling that most people regard those of
us who spend our downtime reading hard books or watching hard movies or
listening to hard music as afflicted with something on the level of masochism.
And maybe we are. It doesn’t bother me, much. I get techy when I’m not
thinking about something. I don’t do sitting around well and I bore easily. I
know that not all people are like that. So if there’s a problem here, it’s one
of mis-addressing the market, rather than one of the market not existing. There
are a lot of people out there who’d like these books, I think. However, I
consistently hear (and make, let’s be honest) complaints about the philistinism
of the average consumer, that fewer and fewer people are reading, that kids
don’t read, etc., etc., etc..
So, how do we turn this around? I don’t have the
answer, or I’d be setting up shop for myself. But I have some suggestions:
First off, the market for reading needs to grow. Very few people these days
read more than a few books a year, and my instinct is that the fewer books
that a person reads, the less likely that book is to be a good one. Book
selection takes knowledge and practice, and if you reading only a few books a
year, you’re not getting those. If the market grows, then the fringe grows
too, and more interesting opportunities appear at the edges.
Alternative methods of distribution and vending need to be explored. Baen
puts most of its older books online, for free. This is an interesting one,
and is an experiment that I’m following with interest. But I think that more
stuff could be done here. I’d personally like to see name authors set up
subscriptions to their writing. Say, for 40 dollars a year, I get instant
electronic access to everything that China Mieville writes. All the short
stories and novellas and essays. When a new book comes out, I get that, too,
and I also get the option to pay a little extra (50%, maybe, or the choice
between a free TPB or half off of the HC) for whichever version of the book
that I’d like to buy. It wouldn’t really take all that many people
subscribing to one of these services to make it a real contribution to the
author’s income. This one is most complicated from a contracts perspective,
because most the publishers are going to see it as a major threat, and the
magazines aren’t going to like it all that much, I don’t think. For the most
part, though, I think that it could be a workable thing, and that it would
make it easier for people to quit their day jobs and write full time. I
don’t think that it would even damage book sales all that much. Sure, some
people would read and not buy, but an author with a good subscription base
could negotiate a lower advance or a lower royalty rate on their books,
which, for them, would function as more of an advertisement for the
subscription service than anything else. If that sort of idea took off, I
think that we’d see a reniassance in short story writing, as they’re
currently uneconomical for most writers in terms of dollars made per hour
spent writing, but this would make them a far better proposition for most
people. The magazines could then restructure, eventually, as a digest
service, reprinting for a small, nominal fee, the best of the short stories
on offer the previous month. Not the same business, but perhaps one that
would work better than what’s currently going on.
I realize that special editions make a lot of money for the smaller
publishers, but I don’t think that they’re a great idea in the long run.
They don’t do anything to address the primary problem, which is that not a
lot of people read, and fewer of them read science fiction. They do aught to
make the pie higher, and thus don’t make a lot of sense in the long run.
The main competitors to books are in percieved order (feel free to correct me
if I’m wrong) TV, Video Games, and Movies. You cannot defeat them. The
scale is just too different at the current time. That said, most tie-in
novels are abominable, and most translations from novel form to the screen
are just as bad. This is an open question, but I think that if publishing
is to grow, its going to have to come to some sort of accomidation with