Friday 29 May 2015

The same old same old

I got quite an interesting email from a reader a few days ago. Here's a quote:

 I have some questions about your work that have been bugging me for a long time. In your Poseidon's Children books, your style of writing appears to me to be markedly different from those of your short stories and the Revelation Space books; notably, that it shys away from the technical detail and minutia seen in your Revolution Space literature. I was wondering why this was, because that detail (like Skade's control of her area postrema, the many detailed descriptions of technologies, physics, and interstellar travel) are what make your work stand out to me and many other readers. Those details and explanations are what distinguish you from your peers and what in my mind elevates your work to the status of "hard SF", something very few SF writers manage to write today.

My initial reaction was one of annoyance - I don't relish the thought that I'm somehow less good at my trade now than I was some years ago. But on reflection, the email raises a fair and interesting point which I think it would be narrow minded to dismiss.

I don't know how typical I am as a writer, but I can say this with some honesty: I'm riddled by self-doubt. Whenever I sit down to write, questions are circling vulture-like somewhere at the back of my mind, ready to pick over the bones of my reputation. Am I actually any good at this? Have I deserved the success that has so far come my way, or have I in some sense pulled a kind of confidence trick on the SF community, camouflaging an inherent deficiency of talent with a superficial surface of technical competence? Did the fact that I have a scientific background act as a kind of compensating function for other failures in my writing? Have editors and publishers given me a pass on the aspects of my work that are less good, because I know about stars and orbits and stuff? Some years ago the critic Franz Rottensteiner said of my work that it consists of "endless machineries that produce exactly nothing: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Believe me I do not dismiss such thoughts, much as I might wish to.

And more than this: even allowing for the objective quality of my work, and setting aside Rottensteiner's dismissal, am I getting better or worse at what I do? And what do we mean by "better" anyway?

I think about this stuff all the time. The first thing to say - and a very obvious point - is that there need be no correlation between effort and effect. In other words, just because I put X hours into work Y, there is no guarantee of achieving result Z. I can't speak for other writers, but I've sweated months - even years - over labours of love that have been met with general indifference by the world at large. I've also written pieces in a blaze of industry, sometimes over no more than a weekend, that have hit a note and continued, in their modest way, to do well. I recently got a cheque for yet another reprint of "A Spy in Europa", a story I started on a Friday evening and had finished (barring minor polishing) by Sunday, and which has done very well for itself over the ensuing 18 years. So, yes - I'm well aware that merely putting in the requisite hours is not a reliable metric of artistic success, as any unpublished writer will acknowledge.

To go back to that "better" thing - what do I mean by it?  My answer to that would be that because writing is a complex, multivalent activity, there can be no single metric of improvement; it's not like being a faster sprinter, a taller high-jumper. Being an excellent writer is not about being better at plotting, better at character, better at voice, being better at world-building (which I think is what our letter writer was chiefly thinking of) but rather a question of full-spectrum dominance across all those aptitudes and more. The problem - or perhaps the challenge - is that some of those metrics are in subtle tension with each other. Most writers will know this. If you think of writing as resembling a vast mixing desk with lots of sliders, pushing some of those sliders in one direction will mean that some of the other sliders can't be pushed to their full extent. There is only so much narrative space within a text.  When I made a conscious decision to anchor the Poseidon's Children books around a very human clan of family members, and to eschew obvious villains and heroes, I knew that this was going to involve some sacrifices in other aspects of my writing. There's a reason we speak of the "novel of character" - it's an acknowledgment that some other aspects of novel writing will be less prominent. Similarly, when we speak of a book as being plot-driven, a "high octane thrill ride" or some such, we won't be too surprised if the text is not full of lingering, atmospheric descriptions of locales, or passages fixated on weighty introspection.

Any competent writer knows that making an aesthetic decision to amplify one aspect of novel writing will lead to some readers feeling short-changed because they're inevitably getting less of the stuff they like. To those readers, the writer has indeed got worse, because their particular tastes are no longer being served as efficiently. Another group of readers may prefer the newer direction, though. To them, there's no question that the writer has improved. However, neither group of readers has a claim to anything more than a subjective position on the matter.

The writer, meanwhile, might acknowledge that the new work is different in effect than the older, but they might not wished to be pressed into admitting that is either better or worse. To the writer, it might just feel like an invigorating change of mode, a holiday from what has become am effective but routine style. Writers (interesting writers, anyway) are creatively restless, and even when they hit on a set of approaches that seems to match the tastes of a given cohort of readers, they'll want to poke and prod at that envelope as much as possible - even in the full knowledge that some part of their core audience will be disappointed or indeed alienated.

Returning to the email:

Your style of writing in the Poseidon's Children series is more simplistic in than your Revelation Space work in this regard (doesn't mean I'm knocking it!), and I've been wondering why ever since I picked up Blue Remembered Earth. Is it to appeal to a wider audience? Is it your personal choice? Did people complain/not like the technical writing and explanations?

I'm not sure I'd go with "simplistic" - certainly from my side of the desk it often felt as if I was juggling far more variables than at any point in the Revelation Space stuff - but I would accept that there has been a conscious intention to downplay the technical aspects of the universe. Why? Because I wanted to evoke a sense in which my characters were fully immersed in a living, breathing twenty second century - and none of them really cared how the tech worked, as long as it did. That's why there are no detailed descriptions of VASIMR drives, or telepresence systems, or implants - it's all just there, fully accepted as the furniture of day to day life. How many people know what a "universal serial bus" really is? How many people understand MP3 encoding? None of that downplaying of the technical aspects was unconsidered, and I can safely say that none of it sprung from commercial pressures, or any desire to reach a wider audience.

The fact is I write solely for myself; everything else is a bonus. My publisher has given me extraordinary latitude to write exactly what I want, across thirteen novels, with next to no pressure to make my work more or less approachable to a wider audience. But to come back to that restlessness - I don't want to do the same thing over and over again. That doesn't mean I repudiate the old thing, or won't return to it. But it's just one mode and I don't want to be defined by it. But I also know that it is impossible to grow as a writer unless you are prepared to disappoint some cohort of your readership.

That's just the way it is.


  1. I appreciate your addressing this. I do care about USBs and codecs and like to have the technical aspects of how things (might) function so there's that. I found that in Poseidon's Children there seemed to be more of an emphasis on characters rather than world. And, really, it's the world I am interested in. But I still enjoyed the books.

  2. Some writers are in it for the money and fame, some are in it for the chance to advance their ideology, but most are in it because they have stories to tell. For the latter, there is no right way or wrong way to write. You can always tell a person who is writing for pleasure because it comes across in the text. I would much rather read stuff like that than work that has been created to hit all the marks and sell all the copies.

    I really like your Revelation Space stuff because I think the universe you built was extraordinary and exciting. Readers will always be nagging you for more of that stuff for the same reason people want more Star Wars or Harry Potter. But you certainly are not a one-trick pony. You have written stories based around places, events and people, and I think all are good reads.

    I've enjoyed reading the story of the Akinyas. I am still waiting for my copy of Poseidon's Wake (I pre-ordered it from Amazon but they are somehow unable to deliver it at the moment), but I got my copy of Slow Bullets this morning to keep me occupied for a bit.

  3. I agree with Simon. The Revelation Space universe really appealed to me. I was drawn to the looming threat but also had several books to grow to love it. I have only read the first of the Poseidon's Children novels so I know less about the world.

    I didn't really have much to say but I wanted to take the opportunity to participate with in a conversation with my favorite science fiction author.

  4. Hello AR:

    When I first read Revelation Space - a new paperback in the US at the time, June 2002 - I was blown away by the intricate and enthralling story. Good science was the bonus. However, I did feel you were not yet a great writer. Good enough that I would read everything you've written since, but room for improvement. And improvement has come.

    When I read House of Suns, I sat back and thought, "My God, Mr. Reynolds has finally written a love story. How wondrous."

    Then I got Blue Remembered Earth, and the first page (which even prefaces something called a Prologue) struck me as poetry. Then I thought, "Oh my. Mr. Reynolds has become a WRITER."

    Bear in mind, subjectively Ray Bradbury is the greatest full-on, consistent WRITER I have ever read. So, any time an author can evoke that kind of magical wonder, that effervescent star-stuff bursting in my mind and swelling my heart, complaints.

    Is it better? I think so. The technically accurate exposition in your earlier work were proficient and fascinating, but always seemed to be in black, white, or gray (that's "grey" to you). Your later work is in full color (colour). From eerie, dark, cold, and depressive to vibrant, alive, hopeful. Both have their place, and your progression from one to the other is exciting to watch.

    Having said all that, I have wondered something about editors. It seems to me that if a new author uses a word that makes the editor scramble for his dictionary (like "multivalent" in this piece), then said editor will publish the work, even if it is crap. But, if that same new author writes a great story, easily accessible to readers with no magniloquence (te-he), said author didn't catch the editors eye, so no sale. Am I vastly underestimating (or, oversimplifying) an editor's judgment?

    Anyway, you continue to grow with each work. The early ones were at least proficient; the latter verge on art. No one gave you a free ride, instead they saw potential. You are good at this, and getting ever better. Keep it up, my friend.


  5. In hindsight I have to agree that BRE contains "fewer technical details". I didn't actually notice while reading, for one, because I was just blown away by the sheer awesomeness of the story and world you created, and on the other hand, because I believe my imagination (and memories from other science and -fiction) bleed into what I perceive while reading. At no point I was missing details, I probably just made them up as I went.

  6. Al, thanks for your honesty re. self-doubt. And you, who are (from the POV of countless aspirant writers) right at the pinnacle of the proverbial Pavonis Mons.

    For my money, your moving in new directions is all good providing you are still writing “great books”. Yes, my personal sweet spot is sf noir, so my favourites of yours have long been Chasm City and The Prefect, but I read widely. What bothers me most is that I’m reading something well written and crafted.

    I give a lot of time to what I read. And okay, I’m one of those aspirant writers I mentioned, so I want to learn from what I read. So it has to be well written and crafted.

    Beyond that, I'd say the RS books played to your strengths, because, er, you really are VERY good at twisted and weird (sorry). That said, I applaud the switch to greater character emphasis. While I certainly haven’t felt an absence of ideas or science in your recent work, reading is soulless for me unless I care about the characters.

    If I were forced to note an area where your work has on occasion fallen down, I’d say something along the lines of plotting and focus. For example, BRE starts carefully. It builds a great sf world brick-by-brick. It then rather runs away with itself, with a fair bit of description and action that isn't doing very much. In a different way, Century Rain has the same.

    But I say the above as someone who now reads very differently (critically) since I embarked on my own very (very!) shaky attempts to write. I should add that your work has, genuinely, been an inspiration for me – I don't know if I'd be reading now, much less writing, without it.

  7. I thought there was plenty of hardware and software to sate my appetite for futuristic reading. You balanced this and the characterisation rather well I thought. Haven't read the third one yet, but I don't expect it to be lopsided in one way or the other!

  8. I read a lot of Star Trek and IMHO are over the top character driven.....Usually end up not caring about the plot(they defeat the enemy!). I read the books to see what Spock/Kirk/Picard..etc.. are up to...FaceTrek if you will. I read them like this:..........blah, blah, scan SPOCK! blah, blah, all is lost KIRK! When they introduce new characters, I'm bored out of my skull....I just want to read about PICARD! DATA! Much like some religious text...blah, blah, bread JESUS,blah blah, bush MOSES!

    It's absolutely a balancing act!

    Not sure I want any slider set to eleven. Might be fun to try though!

  9. Thank you for being open and honest in this post.

    I would like to make a few observations, which I hope will help other writers, based on my experience as an aspiring hard science fiction writer (i.e. someone who has had a few stories published, but not yet made it big time) that had a rather unusual path through life.

    I've found that to write science-based science fiction I had to be active in science and technology. It means that not only can I keep up with the latest discoveries in science and improvements in technology, but also I found myself coming with fresh and interesting ideas to write stories about.

    In the current climate of fantasy being popular and selling well, I can understand it is very tempting to move towards the fantasy (for me, dark) side of things. I have felt that the tempo of BRE was more what I was used to from fantasy novels.

    I have yet to come across an agreed definition of literary, so can only comment on what I perceive as literary. (I like 'literary science fiction' and have been accused by notable literary critics of writing the stuff.) Whilst BRE is more character based than your previous novels, I felt it was a straightforward story. For me, literary includes but is not limited to the words saying one thing while the message is different, heightening emotions through the use of rhythm in the words and examining a theme from different points of view.

    I hope this helps.

  10. That self-doubt rings true. It's present when I write blog posts, its there when I write code for my hobby, and its there at my job too. "I don't know what I'm doing, I suck at this, why do people think I have any expertise?" Imposter syndrome. It used to completely stop me from doing things because I thought I had nothing to contribute. I still strongly suspect I have nothing, but have decided that I may as well do something anyway on the off chance that I'm wrong.

    Imposter syndrome is probably much more widespread than people let on, and there are cultural pressures to not reveal self-doubt publicly.

    I also suspect that those without self-doubt have either stopped learning and improving or are egotistical assholes. Doubt goes away when you stay within safe boundaries that you know you can succeed in, and it goes away when you stop caring what others will think.

    This sounds kind of dark, but my theory is that intellectual pain, struggle, and doubt is a sign that a person is thinking and growing. A low to modest background level of doubt accompanies most creative work, and the occasional spike of self-doubt is a necessary inverse to the occasional spike of creativity, a period of questioning that helps prune away excess or bad ideas.

    1. ..very well put, and totally agree. This was my thoughts exactly. In all walks of life people have self doubt, musicians, actors and everman like myself. AR keep on writing, brilliant as always, and hope you still get to enjoy the clear nights.

  11. I'll respectfully agree with the person who wrote that letter; I just haven't been able to get into your recent work.

    Here's my obligatory analogy. I find your old stuff to be Alien, and the modern work, Prometheus. Revelation Space, like Alien, was grounded in reality. Sure, it was set in the future and dealt with the fantastical, but like Alien, the devil was in the detail. For me, there is no greater wonder than the natural world; no amount of prose can beat descriptions of stars, of How Stuff Works. Revelation Space did this amazing thing of using a not-uncommon plot (ancient alien wars, bad guys in the shadows) but threaded it through a universe bound by Einstein, whose rules were explained to the reader (okay, with some artistic license).

    Then you put out Pushing Ice, which did the same thing (and it's why it's also one of my favourite stories of yours). And whilst Terminal World, House of Suns and Century Rain were actually great stories, along came the BRE sequence, and you might have well have turned into Iain M Banks and ignored the science completely. Instead of space, we got elephants.

    Now you might take the comparison to M. Banks as a compliment, which is both true and not; Banks' work was crazy. Crazy silly, but it's something only he could pull off.
    I'll be honest and say that this is the first sequence of yours I haven't rushed out to buy after the opening novel. I've still not read Poseidon's Wake, and have no idea when I will.

    Anyway, you were very honest in your open response to your letter (and thank you for that), so I thought I'd honour your honesty by doing something the same. As a purely selfish motive, I hope one day you return to Hard Sci-Fi. Even if it's not grand in scope, you still do it better than anyone. Of course, I agree with you completely about the lack of right/wrong/better/worse, and that this is all objective.

    Best of luck with your future works.

  12. Thanks, very interesting (and honest) perspective.

  13. Count me among those who very much value the strong character development of your recent books.

    It's not that I didn't like your earlier books, but there is a depth of emotion that comes from the somewhat greater emphasis on characterization that makes the imagination and speculation of science fictional settings that much more effective. I think the Poseidon series was quite an achievement for you and the field. (And I look forward to seeing what you write next.)

  14. I have always respected completely the right of the artist to try completely new things even if the results are not always quite what drew me to them in the first place. The results are what prevent stagnation and boredom. Often the new direction will upset an old guard but if those people really cared, they would be great fun for they had already received and realise the importance of trying something new, even if only to prove that perhaps it did not work out.

    The direction you took with Blue Remembered Earth was both refreshing and enjoyable and personally I thought it was still wonderfully heavy on the 'hard' details which is one of the things I have always enjoyed so much about your work. Yes it was different and sure, maybe a small part of me wanted a Conjoiner to pop out of the woodwork, but the scope of the story and humanness of the characters (especially the non-homosapien ones) were everything that I hoped for (as usual) in your stories.

    I guess I am perhaps not a proper Scifi fan for not having heard of Franz Rottensteiner... But the fact that I have not and do not ever care to says everything that need to be said on the subject. Enola, Galactic North, Weather - These are stories that gave me everything I had ever hoped for - mystery and searing wonder in a clear tangible vision of how things could be, with an emotional punch that makes me feel like a teenager all over again.

    Please carry on doing exactly what you are doing. The only thing that might ruin your writing is listening to critics - people who while unable to create anything of their own, seek to create doubt in the work of others.