this space intentionally left blank

August 5, 2005

Filed under: fiction»writing»technique

Writing without a clue

In the middle of Charlie Stross's Iron Sunrise, I realize what annoys me so much about a lot of modern sci-fi authors: they never explain anything. The reader is cast into the setting, completely adrift, with only side comments by various characters and tiny throw-away sentences to explain what's going on. Eventually, you'll figure out what they're talking about, but by that point it's 200 pages in.

Stross is terrible about this. There's a lot of talk about light-cones and temporal causality, and nothing ever explains what the hell any of it means. At one point, without any further elaboration as to why, he states that the term light cone wasn't fully understood until FTL travel became available. Perhaps I have to go invent a warp drive before I can read this book, but I like to think that's a little excessive.

Dan Simmons builds whole books around uninforming his readers. Alastair Reynolds is bad with details, but will at least take the time to explain the hard stuff. Bruce Sterling straddles the line, as does Vernor Vinge, sometimes saying too much and sometimes too little. Cory Doctorow wants to write this way, but his characters are too chatty, and consequently a lot of exposition tends to slip in. Yet all of these authors are relatively new additions--Asimov and Heinlein certainly didn't delight in leaving you in the dark.

On the contrary, I see this style of SF as having two causes. The first is the cyberpunk movement--specifically, William Gibson. Gibson's novels will often deal with the technical aspects of the setting purely in subjective or poetic terms. This is because he isn't interested in the technology per se, he's interested in what it means (and because he's a great writer). I don't mean to denigrate that decision, because I actually think it's very important for the genre. It signalled a move away from technofetishism, and placed more stress on the human nature of science fiction. It also makes his work age better.

Which brings us to the second cause for this mystery meat of sci-fi settings. Namely, it defies explanation. Nowadays, after years of X-ray beams and nuclear hamsters, fans expect more than just a catch-phrase if there's an explanation offered. You can't just say that the "gamma particles" did it and move on--that's old-fashioned. Instead, writers have figured out that if they treat technology the same way we do in real life (where few people really understand or care how their computer or toaster or DVD player work), they can dodge the pressure to actually explain the strange things they're showing us.

(Of course, the third, and possibly most likely cause, is that someone started doing this, it caught on, and now it's just the hip thing for hot young authors--or aspiring hot young authors-to-be--to do.)

You could argue that the lack of intrusive exposition is good for story, and sometimes I would buy that. It's true that the minor character (a passing engineer or salesman, for example), who just happens to know how the Wormhole Squeezer or Nano-befuddler works, has become a bit of a cliche. This was the role that Geordi LaForge played on Star Trek. And it's true that the story becomes more realistic--for the characters. Meanwhile, I'm flipping back and forth around the pages, trying to find out there's a description for the Wormhole Squeezer or if I should just keep reading. It stresses me out.

Hence my firm belief that removing exposition just to make the prose read faster was a huge mistake. Anything that confuses your reader is a mistake. Confused readers do not enjoy your writing(the fact that this is my second Stross book to the contrary). And if you're good, the exposition is actually a reason to keep reading. Take it from the master, Neal Stephenson. The following excerpt is from Snow Crash, which I still describe to anyone who will listen as "rock and roll on a page." It follows the introductory paragraphs, which describe a sword-carrying, black-clad driver called the Deliverator:

The Deliverator used to make software. Still does, sometimes. But if life were a mellow elementary school run by well-meaning education Ph.D.s, the Deliverator's report card would say: "Hiro is so bright and creative but needs to work harder on his cooperation skills."

So now he has this other job. No brightness or creativity involved -- but no cooperation either. Just a single principle: The Deliverator stands tall, your pie in thirty minutes or you can have it free, shoot the driver, take his car, file a class-action suit. The Deliverator has been working this job for six months, a rich and lengthy tenure by his standards, and has never delivered a pizza in more than twenty-one minutes.

Oh, they used to argue over times, many corporate driver-years lost to it: homeowners, red-faced and sweaty with their own lies, stinking of Old Spice and job-related stress, standing in their glowing yellow doorways brandishing their Seikos and waving at the clock over the kitchen sink, I swear, can't you guys tell time?

Didn't happen anymore. Pizza delivery is a major industry. A managed industry. People went to CosaNostra Pizza University four years just to learn it. Came in its doors unable to write an English sentence, from Abkhazia, Rwanda, Guanajuato, South Jersey, and came out knowing more about pizza than a Bedouin knows about sand. And they had studied this problem. Graphed the frequency of doorway delivery-time disputes. Wired the early Deliverators to record, then analyze, the debating tactics, the voice-stress histograms, the distinctive grammatical structures employed by white middle-class Type A Burbclave occupants who against all logic had decided that this was the place to take their personal Custerian stand against all that was stale and deadening in their lives: they were going to lie, or delude themselves, about the time of their phone call and get themselves a free pizza; no, they deserved a free pizza along with their life, liberty, and pursuit of whatever, it was fucking inalienable. Sent psychologists out to these people's houses, gave them a free TV set to submit to an anonymous interview, hooked them to polygraphs, studied their brain waves as they showed them choppy, inexplicable movies of porn queens and late-night car crashes and Sammy Davis, Jr., put them in sweet-smelling, mauve-walled rooms and asked them questions about Ethics so perplexing that even a Jesuit couldn't respond without committing a venial sin.

The analysts at CosaNostra Pizza University concluded that it was just human nature and you couldn't fix it, and so they went for a quick cheap technical fix: smart boxes. The pizza box is a plastic carapace now, corrugated for stiffness, a little LED readout glowing on the side, telling the Deliverator how many trade imbalance-producing minutes have ticked away since the fateful phone call. There are chips and stuff in there. The pizzas rest, a short stack of them, in slots behind the Deliverator's head. Each pizza glides into a slot like a circuit board into a computer, clicks into place as the smart box interfaces with the onboard system of the Deliverator's car. The address of the caller has already been inferred from his phone number and poured into the smart box's built-in RAM. From there it is communicated to the car, which computes and projects the optimal route on a heads-up display, a glowing colored map traced out against the windshield so that the Deliverator does not even have to glance down.

If the thirty-minute deadline expires, news of the disaster is flashed to CosaNostra Pizza Headquarters and relayed from there to Uncle Enzo himself -- the Sicilian Colonel Sanders, the Andy Griffith of Bensonhurst, the straight razor-swinging figment of many a Deliverator's nightmares, the Capo and prime figurehead of CosaNostra Pizza, Incorporated -- who will be on the phone to the customer within five minutes, apologizing profusely. The next day, Uncle Enzo will land on the customer's yard in a jet helicopter and apologize some more and give him a free trip to Italy -- all he has to do is sign a bunch of releases that make him a public figure and spokesperson for CosaNostra Pizza and basically end his private life as he knows it. He will come away from the whole thing feeling that, somehow, he owes the Mafia a favor.

The Deliverator does not know for sure what happens to the driver in such cases, but he has heard some rumors. Most pizza deliveries happen in the evening hours, which Uncle Enzo considers to be his private time. And how would you feel if you had to interrupt dinner with your family in order to call some obstreperous dork in a Burbclave and grovel for a late fucking pizza? Uncle Enzo has not put in fifty years serving his family and his country so that, at the age when most are playing golf and bobbling their granddaughters, he can get out of the bathtub dripping wet and lie down and kiss the feet of some sixteen-year-old skate punk whose pepperoni was thirty-one minutes in coming. Oh, God. It makes the Deliverator breathe a little shallower just to think of the idea.

But he wouldn't drive for CosaNostra Pizza any other way. You know why? Because there's something about having your life on the line. It's like being a kamikaze pilot. Your mind is clear. Other people -- store clerks, burger flippers, software engineers, the whole vocabulary of meaningless jobs that make up Life in America -- other people just rely on plain old competition. Better flip your burgers or debug your subroutines faster and better than your high school classmate two blocks down the strip is flipping or debugging, because we're in competition with those guys, and people notice these things.

What a fucking rat race that is. CosaNostra Pizza doesn't have any competition. Competition goes against the Mafia ethic. You don't work harder because you're competing against some identical operation down the street. You work harder because everything is on the line. Your name, your honor, your family, your life. Those burger flippers might have a better life expectancy -- but what kind of life is it anyway, you have to ask yourself. That's why nobody, not even the Nipponese, can move pizzas faster than CosaNostra. The Deliverator is proud to wear the uniform, proud to drive the car, proud to march up the front walks of innumerable Burbclave homes, a grim vision in ninja black, a pizza on his shoulder, red LED digits blazing proud numbers into the night: 12:32 or 15:15 or the occasional 20:43.

See what he's done there? Stephenson's just talking about Hiro's job, but already he's clued us into several important points: a) this is a future that's more technologically advanced, but more economically poor and globalized; b) the Mafia is now a pizza company, a move that has important philosophical/societal implications and which will be explained further at a later time; and c) this future is clearly a satire of current corporate/capitalist business, so there will be many points of congruity with the reader's own experience. More importantly, you got all that information from a passage that was fun to read.

You are never confused as to the setting in Snow Crash. You may find the ideas presented within to be far-fetched or even outlandish, but you never have to slow down or look back to understand them. Stephenson understands that his ideas are more important than a cryptic writing style, and he knows that's why we're reading his story. We want to see what he'll do next. Perhaps this is what's most frustrating about the likes of Stross and Reynolds: the ideas that they try so hard to obfuscate are not really that difficult to understand. We've seen omnipotent AIs, time travel, and nanotech before. I don't mind if the author wants to do something interesting with them or not--they can be scenery or scene-stealing, for all I care. But don't dress up the former in fancy costume and assume that we'll mistake it for the latter.

Future - Present - Past