Friday 12 October 2012


You might not think it, and some of my critics will be laughing into their cornflakes at this point, but I spend quite a bit of time thinking about prose. It's fair to say that a sizable proportion of science fiction readers don't much care, or at least don't think that they care. Read a sample of amazon reviews of science fiction novels - in fact, a more general sample of web reviews will do just as nicely - and you'll find a lot of stuff about the plot being interesting, the characters likable, the story fast paced, the world-building good and so on. Or, indeed, quite the opposite - they didn't care for the plot, they couldn't relate to the characters ("I didn't want to spend any time with these people"), the story dragged, the world-building was insufficiently thought-through, and so on. Quite often you'll see a statement to the effect that the book was "well written", but as often as not there's no deeper qualification as to what it meant by this. Usually, I would contend, it simply means that the pages slipped by effortlessly enough, that the story was adequately engaging, that there were some good bits and an ending that was both comprehensible and satisfying.

A reviewer of mainstream or literary fiction, though, probably has something slightly different on their mind. Whereas a genre reviewer might take "well written" to mean a quality of transparency -  functional, efficient, prose that doesn't occlude the narrative - the mainstream reviewer is probably applying a somewhat different set of criteria. What they mean, generally, is that the prose aspires to be more than merely a painless delivery mechanism for the story; that it can and should do more than that. Not being clumsily written doesn't get you bonus points: that's the absolute least that should be expected. Nor is it enough to avoid cliches; that's only half the job. We can all omit cliches, find prosaic workarounds that convey the same sentiment - but that's like taking out a dead lightbulb and screwing a dimmer one in its place.

There are, I think, at least three schools of thinking when it comes to science fiction prose. Let's be unkind and say that the first school is the Analog approach. This is the notion that the prose, above a certain basic level of competence, has no obligation to be anything other than workmanlike. Cliches, hackneyed turns of phrase, worn-out descriptions, all are sanctioned provided nothing gets in the way of the ideas. The problem, in my view, is that the very dullness of this sort of thing actually works against its intended transparency; it's like a window that hasn't been cleaned. You can sort of see the view through it, but there are lots of cobwebs and smears in the way. In other words, it doesn't do what it thinks it's doing.

I've aspired - and on occasion have no doubt failed - to mostly occupy a middle ground where the prose is aiming for a quality of maximum transparency, a sort of defect-free optical glass. The primary function of the prose is still a delivery system for the story, but it is trying, really trying, to do this with genuine elegance, an economy of expression, some wit and originality, and an avoidance of ugly constructions. CS Forester, for instance, generally wrote this sort of prose, as did HRF Keating. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century it was the default mode for many writers of what we might call the "quality" end of genre writing. It is not trying to do anything really inventive with the language, but at the same time there is an effortlessness to the writing which demands a certain control and authority on behalf of the author. Just as an expert bricklayer can lay a wall with no kinks in it, this is the prose of an expert troweller of words.

The question is, is that the best we can hope for? A few years ago, I was broadly of the opinion that this was not only a good sort of prose for science fiction purposes, but actually the optimum sort. That's not to say that there aren't aesthetic choices to be made at this level - attentive readers of mine, for instance, might note that the prose in Revelation Space generally avoids contractions, something that was important to me at the time. Later, I decided that the avoidance of contractions actually led to an awkwardness which is in itself a bad thing, and so I allowed them back in. Now I am again trying to avoid contractions, but this time at (I hope) a higher level of craft. You live and learn.

Back in 2009, I had the pleasure of sitting on a discussion panel hosted in London by the British Science Fiction Association, in advance of that year's BSFA awards. I can't remember whether we were meant to be discussing the novel or short fiction shortlists, or indeed both, but I do remember that my fellow panelist was Adam Roberts. The first thing to understand about Adam is that he is, and was, astonishingly well-read, to a degree that certainly puts me to shame. I seem to remember, in fact, that Adam stated that he made a point of reading the entire Booker longlist each year. He also keeps up with the major SF longlists. So when Adam makes some remark about the relative merits of science fiction versus the mainstream or literary novel, he absolutely does have the data to back up his statements, and his opinion is worth thinking about.

During that discussion, Adam made a point - I think - that, as good and admirable as lots of SF novels are, as richly as their ideas are explored, it's rare to encounter writing at the same level as the best writing encountered in the modern non-genre novel. The prose, in other words, is often serviceable but it's not doing anything more. The best writing in the non-genre novel is often actively non-transparent; it is quite happy to get between you and the story. When David Mitchell writes of a bat, "chased by its own furry turbulence", he's not shooting for workmanlike. But is that the right mode for SF?

At this point in the discussion Adam and I had a bit of a friendly disagreement. My point, made as well as I could, was that to apply the same set or sets of aesthetic criteria to the SF novel as to the literary novel was in fact a mistake, a category error based on a profound misapprehension of what SF is trying to do. My argument was that it would be equally wrongheaded to apply the aesthetic norms of classical music to, say, punk, because in doing so you would not only misunderstand the terms under which punk operates, but in forcing it to be more like classical music you would rob it of much of its intrinsic vitality.

I think I was wrong, though, and that the category error was mine. Punk is a genre; classical music is unquestionably another. Their boundaries are not especially porous. SF's relationship to literary fiction is more complex than that, more like an embedding or an intersection, and while much of SF does indeed run along genre tramlines, the interesting stuff generally doesn't. The question for me now is to what degree the second kind of prose is still the correct tool for the task, and to what degree I should be pushing beyond it, into what might one call intentional non-transparency.

[Edited - the BSFA event was in 2009, not 2008]


  1. The problem with 'transparency' as a qualifier for prose is that it ignores the entire issue of voice in prose. All prose has a voice, so your choice as a writer is either to acknowledge that voice and control it, or ignore it and lose control. Transparent prose is attempting to do the latter. To make the prose just a medium through which film like images are conveyed to a reader. The problem is that it's actual voice then is very far from transparent. Usually it sounds a bit like a stilted version of the author in conversation. It's also not as popular as people think. If you look at some of the real big hitters in genre - Terry Pratchett, Iain Banks, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King et al - actually their work is VERY strongly voiced. You can hear the voice of the author rising off the page as the voice of a masterly storyteller. the flip side is fiction which is far too concerned with voice - which includes much literary fiction, including Mitchell in places - where the voice is clearly contrived. Again, off putting.

  2. I'm personally inclined to the idea that SF should aspire to at least the heights of traditional, 'literary' prose. I have long felt that SF is more than a genre of entertainment, that it can be a tool to illuminate the truth of humanity in a way that perhaps other forms of fiction can not. It's obvious to all that SF is used to explore the possibilities of future technology, but it is when an author uses it to explore how people work that it begins to show its potential.

    This function of the genre may have pre-existed the genre itself. Consider "The Time Machine" by H.G.Wells: The fanciful technology is not the important thing, it is the speculation about what might become of humanity and our world; the author's reflection on our place in the universe is the true subject. Wrapped up in his marvellously stylistic writing that short story is a classic of literature.

    The idea that art has a purpose greater than entertainment may be old fashioned, one could argue that the fight for that was lost by the Dada movement, but literature is at once old and new. The art of storytelling is as old as humanity, revived by each generation. If SF is essentially modern then we must strive to encapsulate the best of the old within it.

  3. It would be nice if you could provide some examples of writers who fit into that camp (I think we can all cite examples of the "bricklayers")

  4. Damien - I'm trying to work out whether voice is a modal thing that can be usefully separated from the degree of transparency of the prose, or whether the two are too complexly interdependent.

  5. Which camp, Orin - the third mode?

  6. As a reader, I've found myself less and less tolerant of "merely functional" writing as I've got older, partly because I have less reading time, and partly because there are less "new" ideas to carry me past that. (I don't mean SF has got less original, but when you're starting out, inevitably everything feels new). I suspect you're right to say that most SF fans don't see prose quality as a big factor in their judgement of a work, and in fact there is probably a large contingent that view literary fiction as shallow, writing for writing sake and would distrust some of those tricks and styles becoming more common in-genre. You have to look at the mistrust of lit-fics "tourist books" such as Cloud Atlas or Never Let Me Go.

  7. More complex indeed ... seems to me that dividing fiction into genres never really carves literature at the joints. Maybe that's because these divisions are only a "marketing device that got out of hand", as M John Harrison suggests.

    But with that proviso in place, I've always thought that "literary fiction" is a different kind of label, since literary fiction - unlike SF, or crime, or romance - is not restricted at all in form or content. All it takes for something to be "literary fiction" is that it's good.

    Now identifying what's "good", and working out who we should trust to judge "goodness" is a whole 'nother set of problems, but I guess some sort of willingness to follow a story across "genre tramlines", to reach for some "intentional non-transparency" might very well be involved.

    Readers of House of Suns, or Century Rain, or Revelation Space, or Scales, or ... (I could go on) ... would probably agree that you've been writing "interesting stuff" all along, but I can't wait to see what happens when you start "pushing beyond" a little further ...

  8. Yes - third mode. Would McHugh's China Mountain Zhang (which you expressed deep admiration for on twitter) be along those lines?

  9. CMZ might be an example of the second done really well, I suspect, but one shouldn't over-categorize these things. However, I'd definitely mention M John Harrison. Many others, of course.

    1. "But when I noticed my bridge circuitry, I knew I was no longer in control: it had melted to slag!"

  10. I don't believe such a separation is possible. A reader will construct a voice from the words on the page, regardless of the writer's intentions. It's part of the reason why SF fans will happily read workmanlike or worse prose which other readers reject...they construct a voice from the writing that they enjoy. Often it's a voice they've been carrying with them since childhood or whenever they first fell in love with the genre.

  11. I've felt for a long time that Ray Bradbury wrote with pixie dust, and Harlan Ellison with razor blades. Brilliant, "literary" prose from both of them. Artful writing - when not overdone - makes the reading more enjoyable. Continue to strive for this, Mr. Reynolds; it is an endeavor that will reap rewards for you and us.

  12. For what it's worth, Al, it struck me almost within the very first few pages of BRE that you were aiming for something a little bit different with your prose. The imagery you evoked was, in my mind, equally as stunning and original as the on-board life of the Nostalgia for Infinity, or the dark years on Janus. But the language you used to paint the scene was distinctly more epic, or perhaps poetic, than anything I'd read of yours previously. It was an interesting shift in direction for you, and its reward was a suitably epic and grandiose feel for a novel which, comparatively speaking, was quite small in scope.

    My favourite passage came immediately in BRE, a particularly elegant phrase wherein "the sky claimed its debt" of the wet ground. That passage set the tone for, in my mind, a new kind of Reynolds novel, one which aspired to literary grandeur as well as SF greatness. Was this a conscious decision on your part?

  13. I've never been a literary reader. I don't particularly care all that much about language, but when it is done particularly well, the story does make much more of an impact. For example Hyperion by Dan Simmons or the book I'm reading now: Neverness by Davind Zindell. Both of these have very distinct writing. The afore mentioned Harlan Ellison is another that came to my mind when reading you posting. But to me the story and ideas are much more important than the language. So for me, with genre-literature the story comes first and writing can add an extra dimension, but isn't essential for the prose to be literary to enjoy a book (hell, my favorite writer is Arthur C. Clarke, not the most literary of writers :). O and by the way, I do see the progression in you work Alastair and think it's a good progression. What I do dislike in books is when too much words are spent on details that don't matter all that much to the story. But this is a disease most modern writers seem to have nowadays, so perhaps a topic for another time...

  14. Hi Al:

    As an aspiring writer I really notice prose (I 'try' to pay attention to every comma!). The quality of your prose is one of the main reasons I always return to your work, and prefer it over the work of other SF authors.

    Even before I began writing myself (at a time when I used to be a tiny bit impatient when confronted with too much description) I remember reading paragraphs of Chasm City twice over, because the description was so good!

    In terms of "pushing beyond" I guess I'd like to say a couple more things:

    1) For me the writing prose shouldn't be the end in itself, because for me great writing isn't about technique per se. It's writing that engages my emotions. So, perhaps you can look for ways to write that better encapsulate passion, that puts the characters' hearts onto the page? I think Richard Morgan, for example, is great at this – lots of anger, bitterness, loss, occasionally love, right there in black and white.

    2) I don't know what it's like for you, having begun your first novel 20yrs ago. However, maybe sometimes writing becomes like second nature? Perhaps another challenge is to avoid switching to a sort of 'auto pilot'?


  15. You can probably get as many answers to that as you have readers - I think we all have different tresholds of enjoyment regarding transparency versus a very obvious writer's voice. And I don't think it's an either/ or position (as in, you either write transparently, or you deliberately push your "author's voice": no two writers will achieve transparency in quite the same way, and transparency isn't the one size-fits-all baggy tracksuit to the author's voice bespoke Saville Row suit.)

    But I think you make a very fair point when you call it a tool for the task, because it does boil down to what story you want to write, and what best serves that story (from your point of view - myself, the reader, might disagree with you when I read the finished product... but that doesn't matter). Having said that, I think yet another side of the transparency question is communication. I've read books where the writing feels like it's oh so in love with its own cleverness, and oh so I'm-so-much-smarter-than-you, and oh, look, I'm a real writer, me!!! And, well, when I say read... That sort of thing doesn't really agree with me (and I speak as a HUGE fan of Harlan Ellison - writing with razorblades, too true!- , and Terry Pratchett, and Ray Bradbury, and Roger Zelazny, and William Gibson, and Ursula Le Guin, and Richard Morgan, to name but a few - all writers who have a very strong (and very beautiful) voice. And I savour their books like fine [insert alcoholic beverage of your choice here].

    It's a fine line. But hey, as a reader, I want it all: good story, great characters, interesting world AND elegant writing.

  16. I've always liked your prose. Personally, I think there's more than one type of clarity. Clarity of emotion is often helped by the potency of words. It's easy to do poorly, though. There's a difference between being colourful and being vivid.