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sf farscape leather

as cool as i am, i thought you knew this already

I just recently finished reading Ian McDonald's (ianmcdonald) Brasyl, Hugo-nominated this year, and I've been thinking about it ever since. I learned an enormous amount from it.

Especially, I learned why we put transitions and exposition in books--because Brasyl doesn't have that stuff.

Don't get me wrong; it's a brilliant book and a seriously amazing achievement, but I'm a pretty hip and attentive reader, and I know I lost a ton of what was going on in the sheer tightness and density of the book's concentrated information delivery. There was no room to catch your breath.

As You Know, Bob, I'm a big proponent of getting every word in a story to do as much work as possible--I think every sentence should build or resolve tension, woldbuild, develop character, develop theme, and advance the plot (pick at least two)--but one thing I'm starting to realize is that sometimes, letting air into a story is a kind of work, also.

I also joke about not worrying too much about readers who don't want to do a little work. "You must be as tall as this sign to ride this ride."

Well, my experience with Brasyl was very close to "You must be as tall as this sign to attack this city." Heluva book; I could only read it four pages at a time, and I kept losing the threads of what was going on.

Because the jump-cut ethos of the book means that it takes effort with each scene break to orient youself (which is an artistic choice in this case; this is an observation rather than a critique), which messes with the line of direction and the flow through the book, and results in a somewhat mentally strenuous reading process. (Probably not unlike the sense of disorientation a number of readers have complained about with Blood & Iron, which (among all its other qualities) is my novel-length attempt to actually demonstrate the way my weird nonlinear kinesthetic brain functions on paper.)

So yeah, I've learned a lot. I've learned some things about why we exposit and why we write transitions, and how we can do both unobtrusively, and why we provide a little guidance--line of direction, the camera track and points of focus through the long shot (to strain a metaphor)--for the reader as he comes along with us. Some of it's direction, and some of it's misdirection, and all of it's important. And it's important when you chose not to use it, either, to abandon those guides and assists and kick the reader in neck-deep and see if she can swim.

Comments

I didn't find Blood and Iron confusing to read. Somewhat more stimulating than most of the crap out there today, but that's a compliment, not a critique.
I've tried on books that just didn't fit me. They were made for someone of a different reader shape. It's one thing to reject a book because it's genuinely badly written. I don't find that to be a loss. I hate to reject a book because it's very well written but just doesn't fit me.

My usual test for "this book was not meant for my brain shape" is if I get more than a quarter of the way through and I'm still waiting for the prologue to end. I've had that happen often enough, where I'm still waiting to get to the part that feels like a story and not just a bunch of appetizing teaser scenes, that I know that it's just a writing style that doesn't work for me.
I really get the feeling that a lot of people want to hold up all books that make the reader do the heavy lifting up as brilliant and wonderful, and while that is sometimes the case, in other cases it can be a serious flaw--the trick is figuring out which is the case for a particular book. I used to think that books that I had a hard time following were doing that because I just wasn't bright enough to follow along; I've since come to believe that if a book's making me feel dumb then it's often a problem with the book and not with me.
i'm wit'cho on dat.
"As You Know, Bob..." yes I do, actually. :)

I forget where I've heard it, but it's often enough to paraphrase: Beginners don't know the rules to follow, masters know them well enough to ignore.

Brasyl

I sort of followed along and picked up the story as I went. It took me a while to figure out that one setting was Sao Paulo not Rio and that one of the main characters like to create different identities for himself, with different names, according to what he was doing at the time.

I got the impression the chaos was part of the effect he wanted to create.

I like richness of detail in my back ground, fiddly bits, even if I don't read all of it, more like Charles Stross, Tobias Buckell and Karl Schroeder and less like John Scalzi whose stories are more stripped down.

All in all a good book, right up there with the other nominees.
I had trouble with Brasyl. Read the first section very fast, but when we jumped waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back in time to follow the priest around I began to lose focus. One day I'll go back to finish it, but that day is not today.
I have Brasyl on my list to read, but I found River of Gods to be an enjoyable read. Have you read River of Gods? How does it compare?

Recently I've been watching 70s tv on Netflix Roku. It's amazing how glacial the pacing is, even on an action show. Instead of suggesting something briefly, as TV does now, with a flash cut, or a series of flashed images, they showed the whole thing, and lingered on it. It feels like there's more room for story when the exposition is shorter.
I haven't read River of Gods yet.

On the other hand, those older TV shows have a lot of time to do things like digress, have little character bits, and so on, which modern TV shows (about ten minutes shorter) do not have.
Especially, I learned why we put transitions and exposition in books--because Brasyl doesn't have that stuff.

LMAO.

Haven't read it, unlikely to now. Life is too hard these days to let me want to have to slave at reading. Reading is supposed to be my escape from that. :)
Very well-written book, but not for me. I read through two sections of each of the three subplots and put it away. I couldn't get into it.

And since I live in Brazil, I didn't stumble on a single reference, but as I read I felt like anyone who has never been there might be missing a lot. I thought more explanation was warranted for a lot of things.
I quite liked Brasyl. McDonald is an author who treats me as a reader as capable of understanding and following complexity, and I like it when authors sort of do that.

Short people

I'm a pretty hip and attentive reader, and I know I lost a ton of what was going on in the sheer tightness and density of the book's concentrated information delivery. There was no room to catch your breath.

As You Know, Bob, I'm a big proponent of getting every word in a story to do as much work as possible--I think every sentence should build or resolve tension, woldbuild, develop character, develop theme, and advance the plot (pick at least two)--but one thing I'm starting to realize is that sometimes, letting air into a story is a kind of work, also.

I also joke about not worrying too much about readers who don't want to do a little work. "You must be as tall as this sign to ride this ride."


Oh I love this, because you have just articulated my quibble with the otherwise brilliant Ink and Steel, and Hell and Earth. I poked at putting together a review last night to supplement that of she who will remain nameless (and plot impaired), but I couldn't quite get to the heart of the density problem, maybe because these aren’t the only works where it’s an issue.
I routinely read C.J. Cherryh's work at least twice - once for the story, and again for the nuance. It's my firm (yes, fannish) belief that most of Cherryh’s output epitomizes the "every word has a job" school of writing. Cherryh keeps the air in the story, so it can be enjoyed on that lazier level of reading, but if and when you’re ready to pay attention, wonders of language abound; in fact, buoy the story line itself.
Your work is routinely getting to the two-read point, with characters I think about for days afterward, but you're still a shade off on the story through-line. Not everyone is going to see your [noticeably improving] artistry, and whether you care if we want to work at it, often the density of your narrative serves to distance: “Oh, isn’t that Clever”, rather than allowing the space and fun of unearthing the layered nuance of your effort.

Re: Short people

*g* And, of course, not every book is going to work for every reader. I can only write the best books I can write.

ETA: It occurs to me that I should clarify, because obviously this was unclear to you: nowhere did I say that what Ian was choosing to do with this book was a flaw.

Edited at 2008-08-19 05:03 pm (UTC)

Re: Short people

RE: ETA No, no - you made that quite clear in your original post.
What I [lamely] tried to say is that in my humble perception of ["otherwise brilliant", don't miss that]I&S and H&E, the narrative suffered [in some non-quantifiable amount, i.e. "a little"] from the density, and I was glad you see the value of a little air.
Depending on when I read (or comment, obviously) I don't always have the wherewithal to jump mental chasms or to follow w/out signposts or guide ropes. The thing is, I haven't found a book of yours yet where the trip wasn't worth taking.

Re: Short people

You are definitely entitled to that perspective as a reader. *g* And thank you.
Thanks for articulating better than I'd managed to why it wasn't my first ranked choice for the Best Novel Hugo, despite being quite brilliant otherwise.
Loved Brasyl.
I ranked it first for best novel.
But it was probably the novel that made my head hurt the most in trying to understand it. River of Gods was also brilliant but I found it much easier to follow and understand
Probably not unlike the sense of disorientation a number of readers have complained about with Blood & Iron, which (among all its other qualities) is my novel-length attempt to actually demonstrate the way my weird nonlinear kinesthetic brain functions on paper.

. . . .interesting. I admit, I didn't have that experience at all, and sadly, can't really explain the experience I did have without resorting to synaesthetic terms that tend not to actually explain anything. I didn't find it hard to follow, nor even more work to follow than other novels.

On the other hand, I am not known for linear thought, so that may be part of it.
*g* So you may be more of the patterny type, and thus my brain makes sense to you.
This is possible. The one constant I have discovered with your books is that I wind up unable to express the reactions well in words - other than things like "I liked it. It was good to read." I (think that I) get them fine inside my head, but they definitely tap into the pattern-picture-texture part of my brain, rather than the words part.

And for other people, "It was like brushed aluminum in a circle" is not entirely informative.
Hah!

In my head, they have shapes. *g* So I know just what you mean. Very few people understand me when I tell them that B&I is a spiderweb, and W&W is a rose.
Spiderweb definitely makes sense for me. I really should get round to writing more about those two books as they made me work as a reader, but it didn't seem arduous. I enjoyed the brain stretch. And the times that I went "aha!" and "ahhh" and "uh? ooooh".

(I did wonder at first if there were things that I didn't "know" because I was new to the genre, but then realised that I didn't know them because I hadn't learned them yet, if that makes sense)
Perfect sense--to me anyway.
. . . .interesting. I admit, I didn't have that experience at all, and sadly, can't really explain the experience I did have without resorting to synaesthetic terms that tend not to actually explain anything. I didn't find it hard to follow, nor even more work to follow than other novels.

Same here. I have too much difficulty explaining *anything* nowadays, what with some cognitive function damage (thus, [X-thread] am not commenting over on Amazon, 'cause I really can't do more than "I really really liked this").

I&S worked for me, and I suspect H&E will too. I acquired Brasyl from the library about a month ago, and had no trouble following it; dense, yes, but then I used to read the classic Russian novels for pleasure. The last few years, though, I've been bouncing many more books than I used to pre-cognitive-crap, and I don't know why - I just can't get into them. I can't find a pattern, either; they can be linear or non-linear, genre or non, fiction or non, it doesn't matter. Eco and Helprin have both lost me as a reader.

--g, not terribly coherent
For what it's worth, i found Blood and Iron a lot easier to follow than the Jenny books, even though the Jenny books had datelines.

The four or five books following B&I are a lot easier for my poor old tired brain to grasp. Especially the Stratford Man.

There is Art, and then there is earning a living. Obviously the more you make the reader work, the fewer will make the effort. I rather imagine most people read to relax.

But what do i know? My books don't sell and yours do.
Most people read books I find stultifying. Imagine having to write those....
I am only a craftsman, so there is my bias. Of all the people i know, most of them consider themselves artists. I know a grand total of four people who support themselves with their art or craft.

You are the most successful, corrected for age. I am certainly not telling you what to do, i was just saying.

Personally i would just as soon be ER Burroughs as William Burroughs. But like i say...
I don't think being an artist and a craftsman are exclusive. *g*
I dunno... Craftsmen make money. (joke)
Seriously, the craftsman make what the customer wants.. A chair, a house, a song, to order.

An artist makes something the customer has never imagined before, and then wants enough to pay for. Or not. An artist does not need a customer. A craftsman does.
See, I think that's a false distinction.

because you may come to a craftman to ask for something, and get something better than what you could have imagined, because of his artistry and pride in his craftsmanship. And because he has the experience to know what you need better than you do.

Anyway, this is a fairly pointless conversation. I know you'd much prefer it if I were working on the most commercial fiction possible. You've made that plain on many occasions.

I can't write what you want me to write, and that's not ever going to change. I can only tell the stories in my head.
that's not what i said.
Okay, I misunderstood you then. I'm sorry.
I was talking generally. I also said, you might notice, that i find your books easier to read and comprehend, speaking as one on the edge of senility.

I remember you saying you can only write the books you can write. How could i disagree with that?

I said that craftsmen make stuff to order and artists create new things whether they have a customer or not. I don't see that as a disputive statement.

I have plenty of quibbles and criticisms of your generation's approach to art and literature, but i try to keep them to my self. Why should i bother? Old people are always wrong, and out of touch.
I am reminded of the importance of negative space in art.

---L.
What you said.

I think in fiction</a> narrative art, even, there are two kinds of negative space. There's the kind you put in to allow the audience to breathe and process--what in film they call beats--and there's the kind where you don't say something that the reader will eventually figure out for himself.

Like the missing word in Steven Brust's Agyar.</a>

And sometimes that second thing can be an emotional recognition, a thematic thing, which--as with arguments--is stronger and more resonant if the reader comes to it under her own poer rather than being told.
As a half ass sculptor, i find the term "negative space" silly. The negative of space is matter. Space is space. Calling a hole the obverse of space is a whaddyacallum.

Just saying.
Unfortunately, it's also a very useful term.

So is "Giant Shrimp"
I believe the technical term is "jumbo shrimp." *g*
And sometimes that second thing can be an emotional recognition, a thematic thing, which--as with arguments--is stronger and more resonant if the reader comes to it under her own power rather than being told.

Yes, yes exactly. Sometimes the puzzling-out is an active part of the telling of the story. And it's a part you have to trust the reader to do. Not every reader will be lured into it by the same stories, or to the same degree.

But it's essential to, for instance, the power of poetry. Because when the readers make that connection, the emotional recognition, the story belongs to them, and they to it.

Edited at 2008-08-19 09:51 pm (UTC)
Yin and Yang.
The funny this is that the Chabon, which won the Hugo, could also be seen as a difficult book with all its Yiddish and Chasidism and Messianic fervour. However, Chabon properly does a better job in (a) explaining stuff and (b) having a strong through line so that you never lose your sense of what the story is about. So even if you have no idea what a "latke" is, or aren't savvy on the laws of "Eruv", or "Parah Adooma" you can still enjoy the Chabon because there's a clarity to the writing.

It's also one of the reasons I liked Dust. Because although it took me a few pages to become accustomed with the Universe you were presenting, the spine of the story was always very clear. And there was just enough exposition to make sense of all the key scenes.

I liked Brasyl. Thought that some of the writing was just superb. My issue with it was that the actual story, the actual plot, doesn't really kick in until the last 100 pages and then seems to stop. While the quantum stuff is important to the themes of the book and in explaining the chaos that is Brazil, it doesn't really work as a device to move the plot along. And while I applaud the non reliance on exposition, sometimes you've got give your readers something... anything... to hang there hat on. All that said, I had no touble finishing the book or mostly understanding it.
From Tim Buk 3 to Dar Williams in two easy moves. I must say, great dismount!
I liked Brasyl's chaos, even though it took me two reads to feel like I could do a semi-intelligent review on it.

I treated it as a roller coaster ride and let everything flow and didn't bother trying to connect things to each other until I had enough to line up next to each other. I just enjoyed as much as possible the setting and the little goals of the characters until each story line built up to something bigger and bigger.

Maybe that's because I have a dubious way of thinking. When I free-associate, I'm pretty good at coming up with connections between seemingly disparate things. Maybe that's why I didn't feel lost. My way of thinking is simply chaotic and I don't mind tenuous connections. Or even no connections. I can always reshuffle later.

This results in no end of trouble with my writing, in my blog and elsewhere. I have to think, very conscientiously, about laying all the bricks end to end so that people can follow me. Even now I'm choose every word as carefully as I can.

Otherwise this comment would have been: "But it was a great ride and you really must put aside the bricks and roads in order to appreciate the roses on their windows, leading to odd epiphanies about, per se, the nature of dancing to the heartbeat of a passionate night that folds into diamonds of an unreality. This is the heart of Brasyl: it's the painting of a culture, one that covers past and present and a future and draws together the robe of sparkling causality and the Harlequinade of life and self and being."

And somehow I would end up talking about patterned scarves.

I create some scary passwords.
See? Yes. That exactly is why Brasyl works. And why it remains a difficult book--but it couldn't work in the way it works if it wasn't a difficult book, if that makes any sense.

Sometimes, books are just hard because the author doesn't know any better. Sometimes they are hard because they have to be to accomplish what it is they mean to do.