The success of John Scalzi’s descriptive minimalism

One of the categories here on the blog is Science Fiction, mainly because I read and watch a lot of it.  Occasionally, someone wanting to get into the literary version of the genre asks me for recommendations on good initial books to start with.  My recommendation often depends on the person, but I frequently suggest they try John Scalzi’s work.

Scalzi has a light witty writing style.  He never seems to be far from outright humor, although his stories usually have an overall serious core.  This allows him to explore some issues that other authors struggle to do without alienating all but the most hardcore sci-fi nerds.  A lot of people who dislike science fiction often do like his books.

Of the writers who have explored posthuman themes, his approach is often the least threatening.  His breakout novel, Old Man’s War, features old people recruited into a future army where their minds are transferred into new combat bodies.  But he carefully avoids broaching some of the more existential issues associated with that idea.  Likewise, his novel Lock In explores minds in different bodies in a way that minimizes the angst of many of his more (small “c”) conservative readers.

Scalzi makes compromises to make his work more accessible, but it allows him to present ideas to a wide audience.  He’s been rewarded for it; he’s a bestselling author.  And he won the Hugo Award for Best Novel with the book, Redshirts, with a setting very similar to Star Trek, but one where the ship crew actually notices that a lot of people other than the senior officers die on away missions, and decide to do something about it.

His most recent book is The Collapsing Empire, a far future story about an interstellar empire that is about to lose its ability to travel interstellar distances.  I read, enjoyed, and recommend it.  But it’s the first in a new series, so it ends on a cliffhanger, which some readers might find annoying.

But the reason for this post is that some reviewers are apparently finding the book to be too short a read.  As Scalzi pointed out in a recent post, the novel isn’t actually a short one by normal sci-fi standards, weighing in at about 90,000 words.  Why then does it feel short to some readers?  Scalzi himself offers an explanation.

I’m not entirely sure what makes people think The Collapsing Empire is short, but I have a couple guesses. One is that, like most books of mine, it’s heavy on dialogue and light on description, which makes it “read” faster than other books of the same length might be.

I think Scalzi’s exactly right about this.  His books do read fast, and I think a large part of it is because they’re simply easy to read.  It takes a minimal amount of effort to parse them, particularly starting with Redshirts.  I saw someone once comment that his writing makes for an “effortless” experience of story.

It seems to me that a large part of this is because of his “heavy on dialogue and light on description” style.  If you’ve never read his stuff and want to get an idea of this style, check out his novella on Tor: After the Coup.  Scalzi virtually never gives a detailed description of settings, except to note what kind of place they are, such as an office, spaceship bridge, or palace, and if there is anything unusual about them.  And I can’t recall him ever describing a character in detail.

Some readers are put off by this type of minimalism, finding it to be a bit too “white room”, too much of a bare stage.  They prefer more sensory detail to add more vividness for the setting or character.

I can understand that sentiment to some extent, but I personally find detailed descriptions too tedious.  If I’m otherwise enjoying the story, I’ll put up with detailed descriptions (to an extent), but for me it’s something I have to endure, an obstacle I have to climb over.

One of the most often cited pieces of writing advice is “show don’t tell”.  This advice seems to mean different things to different people.  To me it means that, to relay important information to the reader, the best option is with story events that reveal it, the second is with dialog or inner monologue, and the least desirable is with straight exposition.

But many writers take “show don’t tell” to mean providing detailed descriptions and letting the reader reach their own conclusions.  So instead of simply saying that a workroom is messy, the details of the messiness should be described and the reader allowed to figure out that it’s a mess.  As a reader, I personally find this kind of writing frustratingly tedious.  I tend to glaze over during the description and miss the point the author wanted me to derive.

Apparently a lot of people agree with me.  As I noted above, Scalzi is a bestselling author.  I’ll say I don’t like everything about his writing.  (His character voices could be more distinct, although he’s improving on that front, and his endings often feel a little too pat.)  But his books are always entertaining, and I think, together with the humor, the minimalist style has a lot to do with it.

In many ways, this style is reminiscent of a type of writing we used to see a lot more of.  Classic science fiction authors like Robert Heinlein (whose style Scalzi’s early Old Man’s War books emulated), Isaac Asimov, Jack Vance, and many others were all fairly minimalist on description.

Over time, styles have tended to become more verbose.  I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect technology has something to do with it.  Before the 1980s, most writers used a typewriter.  Iterative revisions, with lots of opportunities to add new descriptive details, often required retyping a lot of text (i.e. work).  It became much easier with word processing software, making it much more common.

In my view, this has led to a lot of bloated novels, often taking 500 pages to tell a 300 page story.  To be clear, I have no problem with a 500 page book if it tells a 500 page story (Dune and Fellowship of the Ring both told a lot of story with around 500 pages), but many authors today seem to need that many pages to tell the same stories that were once handled with much smaller books.

Certainly tastes vary, but I think Scalzi’s success shows that when given an option for tighter writing, a lot of readers take it.  I wish more authors would take note.

Don’t Live For Your Obituary

I’ve often tried to articulate what Scalzi managed in the title, “Don’t Live For Your Obituary.” I would also add not to worry about those death bed regrets we always hear warnings about. We’ll spend a limited time on our death bed and a lot more time in our life. We should spend it doing what gives us satisfaction.

And, of course, even for those whom history does end up remembering, it will likely be history’s creation of a figure that meet’s future people’s needs, with only a hazy resemblance to the reality.

Whatever

Via Nick Mamatas,this article about writer Colin Wilson, who passed away in the last week, which begins: 

How dismayed the late Colin Wilson would have been if, through some of the occult powers in which he believed, he had been able to read his own obituaries.

The man whose first book The Outsider caused him to be lionised in 1956 by the literary greats of the day has been remembered in several blogs for his later novel Space Vampires, which inspired a famously trashy Hollywood film. In the broadsheets, the life of a self-proclaimed genius has been given the faintly amused treatment favoured by obituarists when dealing with a life of eccentricity or failed promise.

Yet there is sort of heroism in the way that Wilson, having been abandoned by those who once praised him, remained loyal to his own talent, living a life of writing, reading…

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Ancillary Justice: an excellent read

I just finished reading Ann Leckie’s new novel, Ancillary Justice, after reading about it on John Scalzi’s site.  I found it one of the most absorbing books I’ve read in a while.  If you enjoy space opera science fiction, with AIs, strange societies, and generally mind bending ideas, then you owe it to yourself to check this book out.  It’s the kind of story that has you contemplating the meaning of the word ‘self’ and shows a serious downside to a distributed mind.

Highly recommended!