Why Johnny Cant Write
11 July 2007
In the late nineties, budgets had been so tight for so long that I had completely lost track of what was on bookstore science-fiction shelves. When things improved for a time, I naturally sought the recommendations of friends; this in turn led to Baen Books—specifically, David Webers Honor Harrington series. I collected them quickly, becoming thoroughly engrossed in the storyline. But, as time wore on, the novels got longer, and the body of work accumulated, a disquieting realization gradually dawned. The writing was . . .
Pedestrian. Painfully so. Impoverished vocabulary, sentences and paragraphs straightforward to the point of banality, oft-repeated elementary quirks of the sort that get marked down by instructors of introductory writing classes, digressions long enough to break the thread of narrative—there was no style. (More than once I have been forced to thumb back to the beginning of a digression because I had forgotten where the story had left off.)
Along the way, I sampled the other headliner Baen authors, Eric Flint, David Drake, Lois McMaster Bujold, and John Ringo. Aside from Drake, whose Hammers Slammers stories I had read previously, all of them were new to me. And with one exception, they suffered from similar though not identical problems.
Flint at least does not digress unduly, but otherwise is similar to Weber. Ringos prose—including his author bio!—is just as bankrupt, and for bonus points reeks so strongly of testosterone and pulpit-pounding preaching of the righteousness of conservatism as to be distractingly irritating. Drake is slightly more literate than Flint, moderately less obtrusive about his politics than Ringo, and oppressively mesmerized by squalor, misery, and corruption. (In fairness: I have run afoul of liberal authors whom I consider equally guilty of riding their hobby-horses through my reading enjoyment. I paid my money for a novel, not a political tract.)
These shortcomings were so consistent that they hinted at a pattern, but the nature of that pattern remained elusive for quite some time. Then one day while exploring Baens Web site I stumbled across the submission guidelines. Glancing through it quickly, I saw nothing out of the ordinary at first. Then I read a little more closely, and discovered this gem. . . .
There it was, not very sub rosa: Baen was selecting for fiction that reads like police reports! I shall not subject my gentle readers to the heartfelt cursing I then visited upon my poor innocent Cinema Display. When that ran out, I sat for several moments in stunned, disbelieving silence.
When my brain began to function again, I recalled my history lessons. During the halcyon days of the postwar period, much of science fiction revolved around stories by engineers about engineers that were read mostly by engineers. To an engineer, characters and style are mere distractions, dismissed with a contemptuous wave of the hand because they take attention from the all-important plot. Intertwined with this disdain for aesthetics was the early Cold-War emphasis on military affairs and the conservative leanings that often went with it.
Then came the sixties and seventies. Along with many other societal venues, science fiction became a battleground, and new voices rose in protest over the perceived wrongheadedness of their predecessors. Many of these up-and-coming authors came from backgrounds that placed more of a premium on writing well, and so their work naturally ranged from distinctive and flavorful to incomprehensibly avant-garde. Many also tended toward the liberal end of the political spectrum, and the intersection of these two sets was large.
The old guard, dismayed at what seemed an alien invasion of their cherished glass-and-steel modernist fortress, came to associate meaty writing and aspirations to respectability with those left-wing hippie interlopers. Their final achievement before being swept away by time and their successors was to set this schism in stone. The lingering tension is garingly evident when one considers that Jim Baen once proudly recounted in print that Drake had praised him for dragging science fiction back into the gutter where it belongs.
The most regrettable casualty of this legacy is good writing. The stories may not be bad, and some may even be good—but their presentation is unfortunate enough to hobble them. Like poorly prepared meals, they may be filling and may even retain some vestiges of nutrition, but they lack the flavor and texture that make them more than basic sustenance, that raise them to the level of art and make them a joy to consume.
Ah, but lest one think I have forgotten the aforementioned exception: Bujold is everything the other authors are not. Her work is concrete proof that good old-fashioned science-fiction (and fantasy) stories can be told well.
She can write of the dark side of human existence with the same unflinching clarity as Drake, but without his ghoulish undertone, and can proceed beyond it to explore the full range of human potential, as Drake does not. Her characters are comprehensible, while Drakes seem more alien than many of the extraterrestrials that populate so much of the genré.
She can lay everything smoothly and with sly misdirection before the reader, in contrast to Webers frenetic and obvious backing and filling. Her narrative is as juicy as Webers or Flints is dry. She knows what details to leave in and what to leave out, while Weber makes a vice of his virtues with the minutiae of his world-building.
She asks tough questions, but leaves the reader free to ponder the consequences; the others wear their politics more or less on their sleeves—Weber, Drake, and Ringo championing conservatism, Flint an old-line labor liberal. I have no real idea what Bujolds politics are, because she is rigorous about concentrating on the story rather than, say, beating the reader on the head with sneering straw-man triumphs over the evil political opposition, as Ringo does.
On top of all that, where the others are heavy-handed, she makes it look effortless. It is not, of course, and I fondly imagine she works harder at her art than the others do at their craft. I look forward to the next volume of her science-fiction series with great relish. At the same time, while I anticipate the other authors new works with varying degrees of tepidity, I have not abandoned them entirely.
Why not? one may reasonably ask. The answer is that classic old chestnut: hope springs eternal. Drake has managed to grind slowly away from the monotonously and gratuitously queasiness-inducing social horrors and gore of his earlier work. Flint is inventive and able to draw other writers into his world, though too many of those others also suffer, through ability or editing, from similarly bland voices. Ringo is still rather bad, even after notable improvement, though his worst tendencies are muted when he collaborates with another author. Weber alone appears to be on a Red Queens racetrack, never significantly improving. Instead, his books become larger and he piles more of them on his workload; he may be trading quality for quantity, a lamentably common tendency.
There is a last, rather cynical question. If Baen Books is so enamored of lowest-common-denominator writing styles, how did the inestimable Bujold manage to slip through? Ω
Go to . . .