I took a short break from writing twice a day reviews to have an existential crisis about writing reviews. I’m going to review what I’ve decided I’m reviewing for.
On file770, in the middle of some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in web site comments, someone brought up the dual ideas of compelling questions and conversational analysis. I’m going to focus on compelling questions because that’s the half that I’ve latched onto.
This goes back to my post about Totaled. It was a good story. Had some interesting ideas. Didn’t do it for me and I think the reason why not has to do with compelling questions. Look at Ancillary Justice and the story is full of compelling questions. Then there’s Mono No Aware.
Cutting for spoilers about Mono No Aware, Totaled, and me.
Mono No Aware won the Hugo Award for 2013 Best Short Story. Like with Totaled I cried at the end. In both cases the narrator dies. Unlike Totaled I believe it deserves a Hugo Award. The story asked compelling questions. What would you do if you were the last person representing your culture and you were the only one who could save everyone else? It also covered heroism, culture, and sacrifice.
Totaled is the story of a woman who is in a car wreck, becomes a brain in a jar, figured out how to communicate, finished her research and died. The author hints at potential compelling questions but never approaches them. The topic of the worth of a human life is mentioned but never fleshed out. The idea of clinging to a non-life to finish work that will improve the lives of others is given as a plot point but not really explored. Totaled had a good story but there was no question to it, no depth, no wonder.
So for me a really good story has to have a compelling question, something that drives it, something that makes it more than a narrative of how person 1 got from point A to point B.
Then there’s the Hugo Awards. The Hugo Awards are for best science-fiction/fantasy of the year. There’s a lot of debate around what makes something science-fiction/fantasy, sometimes also called speculative fiction. The debate often comes back to If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky. This story won the 2013 Nebula Award for Best Short Story and was nominated for the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
The issue with Swirsky’s story appears to be that it is set in a reality much like ours and the story itself is a whimsical daydream on the part of the dinosaur’s fiancé. If I were being pedantic I would agree that having the narrator be the one telling the speculative story is not normal for this genre. Which is part of what makes it unique. The only other story that springs to mind that does something similar is The Princess Bride where the author is telling a story that was read to him as a child.
There are definitely other stories that might have been flights of fancy. Mirror of her Dreams could have just been the breaking point in psychosis for the main character. Alice in Wonderland was probably just a dream. If we’re going to discount every instance of speculative fiction where the author turned out to be dreaming, telling a story they heard that even they don’t believe, or popped into an alternate universe then came home with no proof then we’d have to toss a bunch of books that many of us love.
The key point for me is that speculative fiction creates images in my head that are different than everyday life, mine or someone else’s. Their Eyes Were Watching God was not speculative fiction. It lives very much in the historical reality of the United States. Sherlock Holmes was not speculative fiction. It was amazing, fantastic, I would love to claim it, but every time it approached the speculative (The Hound of the Baskervilles) a scientific reason that was realistic within the scope of the science of the day was found.
That’s one of the interesting things about speculative fiction. A Star Trek communicator was speculative in the 1970s. Today we call them cell phones and they are more common than televisions. I think that is part of what drives the Steampunk movement. It’s a way to make our current technological advances speculative still by setting something in the past and giving them the technology of today with a spin on it.
In addition to the ideas of compelling questions and speculation is just generally the questions that go into any book review.
Then comes the subtle, sneaky issue of editing. I really firmly believe that no book is good without an editor. Just like I believe the best programs are written by teams not individuals. An editor will catch the slip of tense and that passage the author loves but makes no sense, or comma splices that ruin the flow.
When reading a published work I am judging all the authors as if they all had the same editor, the same sharp eyed, honest, down to earth, good person behind them. It’s not really fair. Some authors are great with bad editors and will outpace OK authors with good editors. There’s no way to make the race equal though and I just have to read the final product and not worry about the conditions under which it was written.
There it is. Speculative, compelling, interesting, well written.