[7 December 2010]
I read just about every genre, except I guess romance novels, and my reading is split about even between fiction and non-fiction. For me, fiction is more about the escape and getting lost in the story than it is about literary flares or particularly stunning prose. Those things are great and all, but I’m first and foremost a story guy. Sometimes they go together, like in one of my favorite novels this year, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet, but it’s rare to find an author who sparkles with both plot and prose-style. As long as the writing’s solid, I’ll choose the latter over the former nine times out of ten.
As a result, I usually end up reading a lot of science fiction. It’s not that science fiction has some sort of monopoly on good plots (it doesn’t), but rather that it seems to have an distinct advantage when it comes to having plots where character’s make smart decisions. Neal Stephenson discussed how sci-fi tends to have more intelligent-acting characters in a talk he gave at Gresham College a couple years back. He used the example of Aliens, where the heroes decide on the plan, “escape this death trap and nuke the planet from orbit,” and the plot evolves from there, with characters making the smart decisions most of the time, but still having to overcome plenty of obstacles and monsters. The opposite kind of fiction (Stephenson uses slasher movies as a counter example) often relies on characters make dumb decisions whose only virtue is that they drive the plot forward rather than do anything we would do in similar circumstances.
Of course there are counter-examples and sci-fi isn’t alone in having smart characters doing the logical thing, but sci-fi might be unique in that it emphasizes this kind of behavior. When you’ve got settings full of inherent challenges like aliens and other worlds, there’s plenty of material to drive the plot forward with having to have your characters act like idiots. In truth, a lot of science-fiction really is just other genres re-packaged in space or the future in order to set the stage as the author sees fit rather than conforming to the world we all know and live in. But even when they’re just variations on mysteries or war stories or political thrillers or whatever else, I find that most science-fiction keeps this inner core of logical characters doing smart things as part of their story-telling DNA.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s excellent Miles Vorkosigan series exemplifies everything I’m talking about here. I just finished the newest book, Cryoburn on audio book. As an aside, I have to heap praise upon Grover Gardener’s excellent reading of the entire series. He brings Miles and the rest of Bujold’s characters to life and has a great ear for her prose. The books are really engaging on their own, but when read by Gardner, they become very nearly perfect entertainments. I’ve listened to them all, some more than once. As I listened along, I kept being surprised over and over again by the twists the story took. Not just because they were surprising, but because they were surprisingly logical. Time and again, the characters do exactly what you think they should: they call for help, they go to the police, they make sure the tracking beacon is de-activated first. And when they don’t do what you think the smart thing would be, it’s usually because they’re doing something even smarter. Either that or they’re doing something you think is dumb but which fits perfectly with their own character’s view of the world.
It’s an actually refreshing experience to read a story like that. Like all the Vorkosigan books, there are reversals and challenges aplenty for Miles to overcome, and some surprises as well. As a rule, these plot points all stem from the antagonists behaving with as much logic as the heroes. No not everyone in these books is always smart, but when they’re not, they are believably stupid, which is just as good. And while science-fiction elements play a big role in all the plots (in this case, the social impact of a whole planet devoted to cryogenically freezing their sick), the stories themselves center around politics, crime, emotions, and people that would be at home in novels of any genre. The author’s voice (and the narrator’s) are present throughout, but her hand very seldom shows itself. Gripping tales unfold around intriguing, empathetic characters and result in satisfying climaxes. What more can one ask from a novel than that?
But don’t take my word for it. The first of Vorkosigan books, Warrior’s Apprentice is available as a free download, leaving you almost no excuse not to give them a try. Although really, if you have an Audible account or some other audiobook preference, the Gardner-read versions are as good as it gets. Find the free book right here under Lois McMaster Bujold.