Article: On SF and simplicity

la_marquise_de_ has a wonderful post about what history is for (short answer: nothing, it just is), and she finishes it by stating that expecting something to be “obviously and economically useful” is a very Western (and unhealthy) assumption. This, in turn, set me to digging up a couple thoughts about SF I had at the bottom of the drawer.

See, I’ve heard those thoughts before about useful things. The “utilitarian” approach (ie, it can’t exist unless it’s good for something) is also very strongly present in genre, and I hadn’t realised how much.

For instance, there’s a lot of advice about keeping things as short as possible, about making scenes do double duty, about avoiding bulky infodumps. There’s advice about keeping a clear and readable style, not getting into the reader’s way, and so forth. In other words: do not waste words. Do not waste the reader’s time. Do not be fanciful. Always be useful and give bang for the buck. If the book is thick, it had damned well be because every word counts.

There’s also a lot of advice about writing an SF story that boils down to being economical: for instance, the school of thought of the Novum (the idea that a true SF story should be about one technology/piece of technology, and following its resonance into society, ie most minor modification you can think of) definitely fits this. And how many times have you heard that a novel should be easily summarised and boiled down to an elevator pitch–and that, if you can’t, it has to be because there is a problem in the structure of the novel itself?

There is also this pernicious idea that stories have to depend on the technology or they’re not true SF: I say “pernicious” because on the one hand, I understand where we’re coming from in trying to define genre, to separate it from mainstream (though I’m not entirely sure I approve, but that’s another story)–but on the other, if you think about it, this basically amounts to saying “this setting/detail had better be useful” (sort of like Novum to the Nth power). This also comes in flavours of “this plot had better be useful” (aka, it has to have a point, an arc, a theme or whathaveyou), and in “this character had better be useful” (aka, the characters who are not essential to the plot shouldn’t be there [1])–and my favourite, the special alternate history bonus: an alternate history setting has to explicitly tell us something about our own world, or it might as well not exist.

And I find this… troubling.

We can see the results of this approach everywhere, I think (and to some extent, this goes beyond literature); and I don’t think we’ve necessarily gone good places with this. The “utilitarian” approach does have good sides (I’m not advocating we should let authors ramble on and on without firm editing), but it comes with strong dangers: it encourages simple stories with a to-the-point-backdrop and plot. It creates stories that are deliberately simplistic, with pre-catalogued plots, a cast of characters as thin as paper, and a world that can be summed up in one or two key concepts. It thins out the author’s voice (and authorial intervention), and ends up arbitrarily restricting what one can and can’t do with a story.
It prevents novels from being filled with random worldbuilding, with random acts and facts–whereas life itself is full of random things, of details that don’t fit in with each other–of plots that cut off and don’t necessarily make sense by the end.

And, most serious from where I stand, it plays on our already-exacerbated Western tendencies to tie everything into neat narratives, and also ends up reinforcing those tendencies–because, if you keep reading novels that have a point, you’ll soon expect all novels to have a point.
Similarly, the hunger for simple narrative has gone beyond fiction: there’s a general drive towards wanting simple accounts for a phenomenon, and single-factor explanations.
And that’s just not how things work in life.
Case in point (and brief digression): the Rio-Paris Air France crash. Nearly all media stressed one possible explanation (the pilots are to blame, for instance, which seems the majority vote). The truth is, like most accidents, this was a combination of improbable and serious events that led to the plane plunging downwards, and it’s impossible to pinpoint which incident “crashed” the plane. They all did: had even one circumstance gone differently, the plane would still be there. But people prefer the single-factor explanation. It’s simple. It makes sense. Why look for more?
Except, of course, that the single-factor explanation is bunk.

Stories didn’t use to be that simple. Les Misérables doesn’t work that way. Sure, you can argue that it’s a book about the redemption of Jean Valjean–but that completely fails to tell us about the book. You can argue it’s about poverty and the life of the destitute–and sure, it is that too. But the book is much more complex than that; it has a multitude of facets–a multitude of minor characters who all have their own lives (and if you only kept those necessary to the plot, it would be a much poorer book)–and this makes it breathe. This makes it real. This makes full; and fulfilling.

I’m not saying you won’t take anything away from Les Misérables or Dream of Red Mansions (that last being pretty much the epitome of “plotless” for me, but utterly wonderful nevertheless). Of course you will. Of course you’ll find your own lessons, and your own interpretations.
But to want novels and/or worldbuilding to be as simple as possible feels wrong to me–like we’re cutting off our own limbs because, after all, they’re not really necessary/economical… It reminds me of Karl Marx’s “religion is the opium of the people”. By this, he meant that religion gave people what they wanted–the illusion of stability and purpose–and kept them from realising they were exploited; we seemed to have moved to “fiction is our opium”–into a world where fiction satisfies our cravings for simplicity, and prevents us from realising how complex and difficult the real world can be.

So, anyway, that’s what I see. I’d never realised before how much it worried me, or how many of those things came together in a solid (and utterly wrong, at least from my POV) vision of the world according to fiction [2].

What do you think? Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments (specifically, if you want to disagree, do go ahead. I could use some reassurance here… [3])

[1] Wanting few characters in a novel didn’t apply in Ancient China, for instance: the list of Romance of the Three Kingdoms characters fills out half a thick volume; and the Chinese wouldn’t have considered the story realistic unless it listed tons of minor and major characters.

[2] I’m mostly thinking of popular fiction here (genre), and particularly of US fiction, but I do see it elsewhere.

[3]I’m aware we do have a counter-culture to this: we do have people seeking to make novels complex and organic; but I’m getting the strong feeling they’re the minority vote…


  1. I’m really not sure I’ve seen this as a problem, Aliette. Perhaps I’m reading different books from you but the ones I’ve read this year (I’m thinking The Dervish House, Zoo City and others) felt rich and detailed. These of course aren’t American, so perhaps it’s not a contradiction (although I’m sure there are tons of books by American authors that wouldn’t fit as well).

    Where I have heard this advice is in critique groups and writers communities. I think it can be useful to *bear in mind* when you’re writing, especially for new writers whose ‘stories’ sometimes comprise a set of scenes stuffed with all the junk they’ve thought up for their world, but as with everything it’s a matter of balance. I’ve become an impatient reader. I don’t read long books at all unless my arm is twisted, and I like a story to retain my interest, but at the same time I also like it to be rich, populated and textured. A sketch will lose my interest faster than a wandering digression. And sometimes my favourite bits of a book are the neat little details (the two I mentioned earlier are full of them).

    As it happens I’m writing a far-future space story right now (I know, me!) and I was thinking along these lines. I think when you do have elements of a story that are the key elements you sometimes want to play down other aspects of the society they take place in so that the (hopefully quite subtle) clues as to what the story is about don’t get lost in the morass of outlandish names, spoken language, monetary currency or other details that don’t *really* matter that much.

    I think I just contradicted myself.

    So, yeah, I don’t think keeping your eyes on the prize is terrible advice, but it shouldn’t be taken to the exclusion of all else. I’d be really disappointed to read a book or a story where that happened.

  2. One might as well argue that the characters should be depicted with four fingers on each hand, since the ring finger is redundant. Sometimes art just wants to take the form it has despite what artistic theory dictates.

  3. Neil: I”m definitely reading the wrong books then! Seriously, having read Zoo City, I definitely wouldn’t place it in the problematic section; but I have read more and more books that had the problem (and, more scarily, have seen a lot of reviews that complained about the story not being simple enough). It’s mainly a US thing, as Matt Rotundo was pointing out on my LJ–so I’m not sure to what extent Ian McDonald and Lauren Beukes would fit well in the US (and I’ve always thought Ian’s stuff was very rich compared to most genre books, even his first books).
    As I said: I understand where the advice is coming from (and, like you, I’m definitely not up for being submerged in pointless authorial rambling!). I’m just worrying that what started out as advice to help budding authors is becoming the norm…
    And you can contradict yourself 🙂

    Rich: yup. The notion of artistic theory kind of scares me, I admit. It’s too normative for what I think art should be doing… (which is wilder and less controlled).

  4. I am so glad you posted this! Mostly because I keep getting this advice told to me ALL the time and though I do appreciate the general idea that scenes should be important and add to either plot, character, or world-building or two out of the three…It can easily get carried away.

    And then I read books where everything just…sparkles…with how overly thought-out and polished it is. Like all the vitality has been smoothed away into form and function.

    So I posted about it, but I think you hit on the subject much better than I did.

  5. As a general rule, I think ‘if you can get rid of it you should get rid of it’ is pretty good advice. Especially, as Neil says, for writers still mastering the basics of the craft. It’s easy to get caught up in your world-building and your characters and let them over-whelm the plot. Like all ‘rules’, once you’ve mastered it you’re free to break it.

    I think the emerging problem is that writers are being taught that’s what ‘good writing’ looks like. And so, anything that has things in it which don’t have an impact on the plot is ‘bad writing’. (As you touched on yourself, Aliette). I’ve seen it happening in myself and it was only this discussion which shocked me out of it. I watched The Godfather for the first time a couple of weeks ago (not a book, I know, but it serves as an example) and I came away incredibly frustrated at it for not telling me a good story. It was only when I got some distance away from it that I realised the film itself is actually something really beautiful.

    So, my new motto is, ‘everything must serve a purpose’, but with the proviso that beauty is it’s own purpose. Of course, making something beautiful for its own sake takes a considerable amount of skill.

    At the end of the day, of course, it’s just a fashion and will pass like all fashions. But if we want to blame someone I suggest Checkov…

  6. I have an overly simplistic, single-factor theory of the evolution of bad writing advice for you. Goes like so:

    Writers of the 20th and early 21st Centuries worshipped the ground upon which their publishers plopped their fat presses, because that’s where writer manna came from in those days. Publishers listened to other businessmen from whom they learned terms like “bottom line” and “fungible commodity” and liked the way they sounded coming from their own mouths, even though they had very little application to literary quality. It no longer mattered to them, so long as people bought books, whether there was anything of nutritional value between the covers. Then that woman Rachel wrote that book called Silent Spring, the price of paper went up, and the bottom line went down. (Not overnight, no. I’m using time-lapse historiography here with an anachronistic lens; work with me.) So editors, who work for publishers, started telling their writers to use fewer words, because words take up paper. 100 pages, they said. That’s what a novel is. Then agents picked up the chorus, and writing magazines and workshops and MFA programs. And writers started repeating the same undigested aphorisms they were picking over at one another’s blogs and on Facebook and, God help us, Twitter.

    Take, for example, Strunk and White. “Eschew verbiage?” That is the fattest, most pompous sentence in the English language. Sounds like a giraffe munching leaves that no one else can reach, or needs to, because there’s plenty of good stuff closer to the ground. But that’s another theory.

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