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Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

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 these industries.

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