Tag Archives: Peter F. Hamilton

Random Stuff

I don’t know how this post will work out. Some weeks, it’s like I’m investing so much in my creative writing that I’m tapped out when it comes to a blog subject. So, I’ll resort to talking about random stuff—hence the title.

I couldn’t finish Perdido Street Station, the China Miéville fantasy I mentioned in my last post. If you’ll go back and read the sample paragraph I put in that post, you’ll get an idea why. I really did try, but it was something like trying to go up a tall hill. You can see the end, but the farther you go, the more tired you get until, finally, you just give out before you reach the top. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t take it no more, and that’s how it was with this book.

It’s 710 pages in trade paperback, and I have no idea what the word count is. Well over 200,000, probably close to 250,000, at a guess. Possibly even more. Now, I have nothing against high word counts. After a first edit, Pipeline still clocks in at over 207,000 words—at least 17,000 words short of the amount I wanted to cut. I had hoped to get it down in the neighborhood of 190,000, preferably 180,000. And I’m considering some major surgery to get it down even farther than that. Maybe.

But we’re not talking about my novel here. I’m just trying to let you see that I have no objection to long novels. In fact, I like it when I can get involved for hours on end on a novel. I think that’s why I have a problem with short stories, because my main objection to them is that they end just when I’m getting immersed in their worlds.

Like I said in my last post, Miéville is British, which probably explains his wordiness. The sequel to Perdido Street Station, entitled The Scar, is just as big. He’s an inventive author, if this book is any indication. He combines steampunk, magic, a Dickensian setting in the city New Crobuzon, and peoples it with interesting races and characters. My personal opinion is that it’s based on London (no big surprise there), and he simply took the existing “races” there—the Indians, Pakistanis, etc—and turned them into literal races. He just gave them enough of a twist that you can’t exactly point and say, “This race in the book is the same as this one in the real world.” But that’s just a guess on my part.

The story is interesting, too, one of those that starts out minor and blows up big. I’ve always liked it when a story does that, where what’s happening has far larger implications than you think when you start it.

But every time you encounter a new setting, he has to give us a capsule history of the place. Yes, this is a staple in speculative fiction and fantasy in particular. In some ways, it’s necessary. We’re on a strange world that shares none of its history with ours, and fantasy readers like this kind of thing, thanks, I’m sure, to Tolkien’s exhaustive history of Middle-earth, the prototype of modern fantasy. Whether you like The Lord of the Rings or not, if you read fantasy, it’s there because Tolkien did it first.

I’ve lost patience with these mini-histories, though. They’re nice, and they up your word count, which helps you get the other half of what many readers want from fantasy: epic. Tad Williams, author of the wonderful Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, among others, calls it the Bloated Epic. But it’s what a lot of fantasy readers want. They want to immerse themselves in some fantastical land for weeks, months if you can pull it off. Some sf—and I’m thinking mainly of the Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton here—does the same thing.

Thanks to all this, though, there I was, closing in on the Big Finale, and I totally lost interest. I simply couldn’t do it anymore. I was on page 544, about halfway down. It was late, my eyes were blurring from reading and my brain was blurring from too many details. Miéville had spent something like a page and a half describing, in what seemed to me minute detail, an enclosed neighborhood called The Glasshouse. I was weary, tired of the weight of all these words. Great for atmosphere, but, in the end, I had to ask, “Why should I care?”

Why should I care about some quirky thing that happened in a given neighborhood? How does it move the story forward? (See my last post. Maybe there’s a theme developing here heh heh.) It’s neat that you can come up with these little details, but is it going to have some effect on the characters? If not, why is it there?

I used to complain about this kind of thing. I used to bitch because the things I’d grown up reading and loving were falling by the wayside. But in the last few years, I’ve learned a lot about what I need to do as a writer if I want to get published, and the standards have changed drastically in those years.

In all fairness, Perdido Street Station is copyright 2000. Things have changed a lot since then. As a rule, readers want you to get on with the story, not tell us little tidbits of how some old man tripped over a bottle and now the place is called Bottle Trip (I came up with that off the top of my head. I know it’s not very good).

Now, if two characters are talking about this, and it tells me something about one or both of them, that’s all to the good. Or, if this minor bit of history has an effect later in the story, and I can look back and say, “Oh, wow. Didn’t see that one coming,” then it’s fine.

So I put it down and picked up Flood by Andrew Vachss. A crime novel, and the first in a series, it’s another critter entirely.

Mr. Vachss wrote Flood in an effort to reach the general public with the message of child abuse. He wrote the book back in the ’80s, when child abuse, and sexual abuse in particular, wasn’t really on the radar like it is now. He had written a nonfiction book about it, but it had no effect outside the profession. Mr. Vachss was a federal investigator of sexually transmitted diseases and also directed a maximum security facility for youthful offenders. He is now a lawyer who represents children and youth exclusively. Since  his nonfiction book was pretty much unknown, he rewrote it as a novel, but had trouble getting it published. No one believed that such things could happen.

In all fairness, I’ve only just started the book, but it’s moved a lot more in 60 pages than Perdido Street Station did in 200, and that says a lot. Especially when you consider it was written long before the current standards in writing.

Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by reading crime novels. I had to branch out, find something else. I was getting tired of all the damn vampire novels out there. I tried switching to straight science fiction, but the market isn’t friendly to new works in the sf genre (unless it’s got vampires in space), so it’s hard to find one. I started out reading Jonathan Kellerman, then discovered L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker (run, don’t walk, out and get that book!). I realized I really like the whole LA noir thing, partly because (and I freely admit it) my daughter lives out there and it made me feel a little closer to her to read about the city. But Los Angeles is a big enough city that it can have so many different stories happen in it that I become interested in the LA noir scene for its own merits.

Anyway, the thing is, crime novels move. Even my abnormally long one keeps moving. There’s some influence from Robert Crais, in that I spend a little more time developing Lyle and those around him than some crime stories do, but that’s all to the good. Maybe that will give it appeal to people who don’t read crime. I’ve left plenty of action in it, though, because I wanted it to move.

It’s not that crime readers are any dumber than fantasy readers (or historical, or whatever), it’s just that crime, being a subgenre of mystery, demands that the story keep moving forward with very little looking back. And if you do look back, you better keep it short, and it better have some relevance to the story at hand, whether it be character development or as some form of foreshadowing. In crime, you usually know who the bad guy is, even if the main character doesn’t, and I guess that’s why I like it a little better than I do mystery. In crime, I get to see inside the mind of the criminal, and, as I’ve said before, that fascinates me.

Well, it’s probably pretty obvious by now that I didn’t know what I was going to say when I started this thing. I was going to include some bits that I’ve learned from editing Pipeline, but I see I’ve reached my limit on word count. My posts are longer than recommended because I’m only able to post once a week. I hope you bear with me on these, even the rambling ones like this one.

My fiction writing really is better organized. I promise.

Later,

Gil

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To Boldly Go…Nowhere

As a science fiction fan, I’ve read lots of stories concerning the future. They’ve presented some intriguing concepts, too. Take, for instance, the Night’s Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton. It’s hard to sum up this massive story, at least for me, but basically a race that evolved on a planet with a very extreme solar cycle sets off to gather information.

Because the cycle is so extreme and their lifespans are so short, the aliens develop into what we would call spiritual beings. In the course of their travels, they encounter humanity. One of the incidents they witness is a human sacrifice carried out by a cult known as the Lightbringer Sect (or something close to that. It’s been awhile since I read it, so bear with me here). I won’t give away all of the plot—go read it, if you want to know what happens—but essentially, when these aliens see the spirit of the sacrificial victim slip through a dimensional doorway, they follow.

Unfortunately, this leaves a doorway open that should have remained closed, and certain very nasty individuals who were imprisoned in limbo, such as Al Capone (he’s one of the nicer ones), slip through and take possession of living humans and start wreaking havoc. Eventually, we learn that this is a test for humanity that every sentient race has to face. And humanity has to find its own solution. It can’t use something another race already used.

Hamilton fully fleshes out his world. It’s a massive trilogy, with something like 130 characters and well over 4,000 pages (in the mass market edition, anyway). I won’t even try to guess how many words, but at a minimum I’d say 600,000. Sort of War and Peace for the sf genre. Don’t let this scare you off. If you like sf, it’s a wonderful read and you really get caught up in the world Hamilton creates, complete with a history that makes sense. It’s the kind of sf I wish I could write, but I don’t know that I could ever accomplish something so intricate.

This long preamble is leading somewhere. Hamilton’s world has a history. By the time the story starts, humanity has branched quite a ways out into the galaxy. Travel is accomplished via wormhole, rather than hyperspace or faster-than-light (FTL), though all three are staples of good sf, especially space opera. The ships use wormholes to bridge the galactic distances, and these ships are powered by nuclear powerplants. In fact, technology has progressed to the point that using nuclear weapons, while outlawed, is not viewed as the ultimate threat. A device called The Neutronuim Alchemist is, however: a technology capable of extinguishing a star.

Besides talking up one of the best sf stories I’ve read, there’s another point to this. A couple of things happened recently that…I don’t know, offend me, I guess is the best way to put it. To put it in the terms of a certain very popular series about a boy wizard, it feels like the world is made up mostly of muggles.

Science fiction has always been forward-looking. Even if the story is dystopian in nature, it looks forward to a possible future. Sure, the dystopian/post-apocalyptic stories are often a vision of a future we’d just as soon avoid, but at least they make you think. Maybe the consequences are a bit far-fetched, such as in Planet of the Apes, but it’s a principle that’s being put forth.

On the other hand, there are the ones that look forward to a brighter future, even if it’s still dangerous in some way. The title of this post is my adaptation of a phrase that comes from the famous intro to Star Trek: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” It seems to me that, all of a sudden we’re afraid to go anywhere. We don’t seem to want to go where we’ve already been, never mind boldly going where no one has gone before.

Witness two recent events in the news: the disaster in Japan and the end of the space shuttle program.

What happened (and is happening, as I write this) in Japan is horrible. Nothing in this post is meant to diminish that in any way. Between the quake(s), the tsunami and the nuclear situation, they are in a bad way and need help of any kind that folks can offer. Let nothing I say here take away from that.

On the other hand, though, there’s the reaction we’ve seen. In Germany, they’ve decided to do away with nuclear power altogether. Real danger of tsunamis in Germany. Yeah, they have to deal with that all the time. And then Obama wants every plant in the US checked, like there’s gonna be this monster wave hit that plant in Idaho and cause all kinds of problems. Then there’s the plant in New Jersey that’s similar in design to the Japanese plant and suddenly the citizens around there, who’ve probably paid it little attention, are scared.

A valid argument can be made that our technology isn’t quite up to using nuclear force to produce energy. I’ll grant that and even agree with it. But, you don’t make advances in anything by not using it. We have a microwave oven because the astronauts needed some way to cook food in free-fall (please, oh please, do not use the term zero-g, as that is a misnomer). Satellite communications came about because we didn’t want the Soviets bombing us (and them) back to the Stone Age. We needed a way to watch them and make sure they weren’t shooting nukes at us because Breshnev had too much vodka one night.

We don’t make advances in science and technology by sitting and watching the clouds float by overhead. The Space Race was another battle in the Cold War, make no mistake. And nuclear power was, and is, a peaceful application of what we learned at White Sands.

And then, on top of that, there’s the end of the shuttle program. The nation that was first on the Moon now has to hitch rides from people who don’t like us because we have leaders who can’t see past their noses. For them, space exploration, with all its potential, holds no benefits.

I’m not talking about flights of fancy where we hop in a spaceship a lá Flash Gordon and make a quick jaunt to another solar system and be back in time for supper. Physics as we know it presently doesn’t allow for that. If that kind of thing is ever possible, it will be long after you and I are gone.

What I am talking about is the Moon. And Mars. Jupiter. What happens when we have access to all that hydrogen gas? If you’re not familiar with the idea, most star travel engines in current sf use hydrogen as their main source of fuel, and Jupiter is one huge source of the stuff. Then there are all the minerals on the Moon and Mars. I’m not completely up on it, but I believe there are possibly minerals there that are rare on Earth.

And what about Europa? It’s one of Jupiter’s moons, and they think there may be water on it, even if it is frozen. Maybe even life down underneath that ice. By the way, in one of life’s wonderful ironies, Europa is the moon that the aliens turn into another life-bearing planet in 2010: Odyssey Two.

None of this, of course, takes into account the things waiting to be discovered out there. What happens when we start mining the asteroid belt? Ben Bova, among others, wrote several stories dealing with this. Or the possibilities that will open up to us when we are able to construct things in orbit. This allows for very strong metals, and if we can put some real habitats up there and not this cheap Tinker toy we call the International Space Station, we can provide lots of solar energy for the planet. Free energy, I might add. Free of carbon and free of charge. Well, okay, maybe not that last, but it will be so abundant it might as well be free. And who knows how much food we’ll be able to produce up there?

There are so many possibilities, so many wonders waiting for us up there. Yes, it will be dangerous. And it will be expensive. But if we’d let that stop us in the past, America would still be populated by a few Indians. I know some folks might think that’s better, but not me. It’s called progress. Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way. Stop holding things up. If you want to be Luddite, more power to you, but please oh please stay out of my way.

I believe it is one of the Beatitudes that says the meek shall inherit the earth. Robert A. Heinlein had an addendum to that that I’ve always remembered: The meek shall inherit the Earth. The rest of us are going to the stars.

But only if we quit letting the meek drive the spaceship. Most of ’em are too shortsighted to be operating a motor vehicle anyway.

Here’s to the future.

Later,

Gil