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March 2017

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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

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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)
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
*g* So you may be more of the patterny type, and thus my brain makes sense to you.
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....
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