Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Charles Stross: Iron Sunrise

Charles Stross's science-fiction novel Iron Sunrise (his second) is a perfectly competent piece of work; we will come to its virtues shortly. But it is not really outstanding, at least in my estimation, and I might therefore not have bothered writing about it here, but for one thing.

And the one thing is this: I fear that Mr Stross may be at risk of falling into a trap which has already claimed a number of other young(ish) British writers; he may be in danger of believing what the papers say about him.

Let us deal with the book's virtues first.

Mr Stross is a man with a powerful imagination, and he has devoted a great deal of time and thought to this book. His main virtue is that he can write; and that is not an altogether common accomplishment; it deserves notice, and praise. He has a nice way with words. He knows, for instance, that data is a plural noun. He refers, at one point, to a feco-ventilationary intersection; and while this is possibly not original, and while I would have written faeco- myself, he deserves credit for using such a phrase. And at another point, in a list of sponsors of the London Times, he includes a company called DisneyMob Amusements. This is amusing in itself, but when you think about it, it is probably inevitable that those two organisations will merge at some point. After all, they have so much in common, don't they? Principally the ruthless pursuit of the dollar.

There are, however, shortcomings. Iron Sunrise is too long. The plot is exceptionally complicated. And there are too many principal characters, particularly the women, for the reader to keep track of them with ease. What writers have to remember is that their precious novels are not read by leisured gentlemen, for two or three hours at a time, in the peace and quiet of a country-house library. On the contrary, novels are read by harassed commuters, standing up in the underground, or risking their lives on the Paddington express. A few pages are snatched here and there, when time permits; during a bathroom break, for instance. In such circumstances the reader needs all the help he can get; and excessive complication is not an aid to enjoyment.

One could go on, but the points, both for and against, have been made in outline. What I really want to deal with here is the reviews for Mr Stross's first novel, Singularity Sky, which are, of course, quoted on the dust jacket of Iron Sunrise.

Here are a few:

'Breathtaking' -- Locus
'One of the most significant works of SF this decade' -- Guardian
'Stross is an author who anyone interested in SF should read and relish' -- SFX. (Dear me, that really is pretty sloppily put, is it not?)
'The Next Big Thing in science fiction' -- Michael Swanwick
'Where Charles Stross goes today, the rest of science fiction will follow tomorrow' -- Gardner Dozois

Now reviews like that, even allowing for some selective quotation, are really pretty good. And a writer who gets reviews like that may be excused for feeling pretty damn pleased with himself.

But the danger is, of course, that he will assume from such reviews that he is doing everything right. And he will go on doing what he did the first time around, in the confident expectation that he will get more of the same reception. And he may, he may. Because reviewers very often try to be positive. If they really hate a book they often just don't mention it.

The one vital thing which a writer who believes his early reviews will not necessarily get, however, is a large and ever-growing population of readers who truly love his stuff, recommend it to all their friends, create web sites to spread the word about it, and otherwise act as the very best kind of p.r. people for no fee whatever.

A writer will only get such a battalion of fans if he (or she, of course) writes books which really work in terms of reader response. And if a writer is lucky enough to get everything right first time out, then he can safely believe what the critics say; he can go on doing what he did the first time, with impunity and indeed advantage. But if, like most first-time writers, he just proves that he can write a bit, but still has a lot to learn, then good reviews are a snare and an enticement. They constitute fleshpots and dens of wickedness which should be eschewed for the sake of your soul.

By way of evidence I offer the following.

Take, for instance, Christopher Brookmyre: a crime writer who is really smart. Brookmyre can provide paragraphs and even whole pages which offer writing of the very highest standard; he's funny too. From the beginning Brookmyre seems to have been praised to the skies. And, being nothing if not human, he has believed what the critics say. And the painful truth is that, one way and another, he has gone sadly astray. I have had to give up on both his last two books after a couple of hundred pages. Brilliant in places, certainly; but overall, intolerable.

The same can be said of Jasper Fforde: brilliant imagination, but just doesn't know how to control it; and, since everyone (except me, on 23 September 2004) tells him that he is absolutely wonderful darling, he sees no reason to.

Another example is Kate Atkinson, who won some very big prizes first time out, and has been ruined as a result. Though in her case, I am sorry to say, I have never personally been able to find any evidence of a high talent in the first place.

So, dear friends and would-be writers. When you open your newspaper, looking for the reviews of your first novel, and find yourself labelled a worthy successor to P.G. Wodehouse/D.H. Lawrence/Barbara Cartland, just remember that it may not be entirely true. And, even if it is, you still have a whole working lifetime ahead of you, during which you will need to hone and refine your skills at every stage. Really successful writers continue to improve; they mature with age.

If you wish to survive and prosper, and in due course become a household name, find yourself someone who really understands how novels work; someone who knows how to bolt a book together, and isn't fooled by all the razzle-dazzle. There must be a few such somewhere. Ask for their advice. Pay for it if need be. You won't regret it.


Dr Ian Hocking said...

Interesting post, Michael. The relationship between a writer's perception of himself, his art, and the reviewers who provide their opinions is a complex one. As a small press author, it's my job to do my own marketing, and my chief weapon has been reviews. The question is, Are they worth it? Not in terms of sales; a great review of my book in the Guardian didn't shift more than a handful of copies, but these kind words can keep a writer going during the long days looking at an empty computer screen and waiting for one's forehead to bleed.

Zeno Cosini said...

I found his first novel, Singularity Sky, an equally frustrating experience. There are wonderful things in it - it begins with mobile phones raining down on an industrial-age planet - but it seems to have fallen into the hands of an editor who lacked either the time or the confidence to do the neccesary recalibrating. At the core of the book, given baffling prominence, is an incredibly detailed, 150-page description of what we know from the outset will be an utterly futile journey, undertaken by dozens of almost completely undifferentiated characters. It's an episode that should have been skirted over in the course of a couple of pages, but Stross obviously became completely bogged down and lost in it. The result is bizarre; it takes prominence at the expense of dozens of much richer, more interesting ideas that are thrust into the background as a result. There's no question at all that the book in its published form is nothing more than a very sketchy first draft for a promising novel that needed to be delivered by caesarian section by an intelligent editor or agent. Sad; I agree that he's a very talented writer, but unless he finds someone in the industry to stand up to him and edit him properly, his star's certainly going to fizzle out.

MaryB said...

Amen, Michael - though what you've written could also apply to promising musicians, actors, painters. Also glad to see that I'm not the only person in the world not thoroughly enamoured with Jasper Fforde. I enjoyed his first book, thinking Well, isn't this clever. But after a while his style just got on my nerves. Ended up putting all three hardback volumes in my church book trade this summer. I was at the fiction table when a woman grabbed all three, clutched them to her bosom, and said "Who would ever give these up." I know who. . .

Eric Mayer said...

This is really the truth. I felt compelled to mention it on my blog today. Mary and I are working on our 8th book in the past nine or ten years (six published) and I still mostly feel I know hardly anything, albeit a lot more than I did 10 years ago.

Ysobeth said...

Well, I really don't know why some people call blurbs from book's cover or dust jacket - reviews. All those "excellent", "really terrific read" and so on. They tell absolutely nothing about a book - about a content, style, even genre; nothing about an author and his work. I don't even believe they're real - can't be all reviewers write about all books that they're "breathtaking" or something like that. Are writers as naive as to believe they're real?!
When I'm to get a new book - yes, I'm seeking reviews. I find them in "Locus" or in net (Amazon for example). THOSE are honest reviews...