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I was prompted to put finger-tip to keyboard by my recent failure to enjoy Iain M Banks’ Surface Detail. Sometime prior to that I also gave up on Matter, by the same author. Why? I’ve previously enjoyed epic novels, grand in scope and idea; so why do I now find those sweeping journeys less appealing?
As illustration for the argument I’m about to advance, allow me to offer a very short story:
The Razor Man, convicted multiple surrealist, was dusty-footing through the Western Desert when the Angels dropped a P-bomb on Deuteronomy. A drear crimson afterglow suffused the horizon, from the pale Ashen Hills to the inhospitable Fractured Mountains.
I wrote this long years ago; in one pass of the pen. I’d always intended to expand upon it, but could never clearly see where I wanted to take it. So I’ve kept it inviolate, as an example to myself of a short story, one with an open ending admittedly, but a story. Quite likely no one else will read this as I do, as I can feel the narrative as much as read it and can perceive the detail implicit within its few words. And that, I believe, is the problem I now have; the rise of superfluous detail.
I’ve been reading (and occasionally trying to write) science fiction for about thirty-five years. I’ve moved away from fantasy, but in my reading have consumed Dune, Lord of the Rings, Howard’s Conan stories, Stableford’s Hooded Swan series, Moorcock’s Eternal Champion cycle, M J Harrison’s the Centauri Device and a great many others. Some of those stories are rightly credited with meticulous and credible world-building, others provide a hazier background, but one which still either carries or enhances the narrative.
In my opinion, as evidenced by some of my more recent reading, world-building is taking precedence over storytelling, perhaps in the mistaken belief that more detail equates to a better story. Now every story seems to be a trilogy, and everything is epic. Is it really necessary?
Foremost should be telling the story, which only requires as much background as is necessary to assist the reader’s imagination. Constant, explicit detail can only reduce the enjoyment of finding oneself a traveller immersed in a shared world, not just a tourist in one that the author has mapped to an elaborate degree.
A comparison of Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League with Banks’ Culture, hopefully conveys the difference. Within the van Rijn and Falkayn stories Anderson provides hints and a few details on the structure and composition of the League. From these few scraps I can comprehend the concept and it provides corroborating context for the actions of van Rijn, Falkayn and their compatriots. Banks spends chapters outlining even the most banal aspects of the Culture, to the point where nothing is implied, everything is explicit. His affectation for odd ship names was originally quite amusing, the GSV Irregular Apocalypse in Consider Phlebas, but by Surface Detail was merely irritating, for example the ‘Psychopath-Class’ The Usual But Etymologically Unsatisfactory.
This issue of information overload isn’t limited to science fiction or fantasy and does have some classical precedents. In Les Misérables Victor Hugo expended 20 years of work to tell us how bad the poor of France suffered before the anti-monarchist June Rebellion of 1832. He re-iterates this same point countless times, when the central narrative of Jean Valjean does just the same, at a more appreciable scale. In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Verne enthusiastically catalogues sea life almost to the exclusion of characters and a plot; setting is more important than story. Perhaps the Gormenghast trilogy should be mentioned in balance, where setting is as important as the characters and could well be construed as a function of the plot.
I would also suggest the analogy of 2D versus 3D film; the latter relies on spectacle, everything has to be detail-laden and panoramic. The viewer’s imagination is submerged beneath layers of unnecessary sensory detail, usually to the point where only an overall impression can be observed; all the fine texture being lost in a blizzard of overload. We can easily lose sight of the protagonists and thereby fail to engage with the narrative, no matter how interesting it might have been. This fault occurs just as easily in the written medium. In some instances a fuzzy image is perpetrated in a thousand words when a succinct sentence would suffice.
When I first bought paperbacks they were 20 or 30 pence and stories were 100 to 200 pages in length. Now paperbacks average £7.99. But does this mean we should expect at least 3000 pages for our money? Surely good writing is not a function of book length and we are hopefully not buying books by weight.
A good story is surely one of quality, not of quantity.
So, do we really need reams of explanatory text? Is a character’s shoe size relevant? Do we need to know the names of every planet (or planetoid) in a given solar system? That the protagonist once possessed a pet hamster is only relevant information if it furthers the plot. After all, whether we knew its name or not, the lemur would still be a taciturn beast…
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