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Notes from the Reading – Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Every so often, I post a few editorial thoughts about a traditionally published book I’m reading—what I see working and what I see as problematic. Hopefully, it will give you a chance to learn a few things, both about what I see as an editor and about what to look for when you’re evaluating your work. I’ll stick to books that are by big-name authors and popular—books I don’t think I can hurt when I talk about what I see as their flaws.

This week’s book is Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Nebula winner from 1993. The book describes the colonization of Mars in pretty granular detail. It focuses on the lives of Mars’ first hundred colonists during their journey to Mars, then during the building of the first colony, then as they adapt to the arrival of additional colonists.

It’s fascinating to read today, because while I have it on good authority that the science Robinson used to write the novel was state-of-the-art at the time, things have progressed. A particularly ambitious book club could get a ton of mileage out of reading this and The Martian in the same month.

I enjoyed it a lot. The book’s pretty long, but I always looked forward to settling down to read it.

Of course, I also have some things to talk about.

What’s working:

– Character choice. This is a book of ideas, but ideas alone don’t make a story; sci-fi has to be grounded in characters—that’s what makes it juicy rather than dry. Robinson has done a masterful job of choosing the right character to guide us through each of several phases of colonization. Political operator Frank tells the story of political upheaval. Mission leader and emotional hothead Maya tells the story of interpersonal relations on the journey to Mars. Hard-nosed engineer Nadia tells the story of building the first colony, etc. Each character is interesting on their own, but they’re made even more interesting by the way they harmonize with the situations we follow them through.

– Pacing. This came up recently in a sample edit I did, so it’s fresh in my mind. Long books have a tougher time getting away with slow pacing than short books do. Some readers will tolerate a little wandering, a slow setup, or authorial indulgence in a novella. In a book that’s 200,000 words long, the author tends to get less leeway. Red Mars handles its pacing and its length excellently. It’s a long book, but no sentence seems wasted, so the length feels earned and exciting rather than frustrating.

– Resonance. One of the things I love most in a book—it’s not necessary for it to be a good book, but it always elevates its status as far as I’m concerned—is when there’s a resonant moment near the end. I love to see the tangled threads of the narrative come together, the clouds open, and the book take on a crystal-clear meaning. This book has that moment, on page 556 of 572:

Late in this quiet meal Ann looked around curiously at her companions, suddenly awed by the spectacle of human adaptability. Here they were eating their dinner, talking over the low boom from the north, in a perfect illusion of dining-room conviviality; it might have been anywhere anytime, and their tired faces bright with some collective success, or merely with the pleasure of eating together—while just outside their chamber the broken world roared, and rockfall could annihilate them at any instant. And it came to her that the pleasure and stability of dining rooms had always occurred against such a backdrop, against the catastrophic background of universal chaos; such moments of calm were things as fragile and transitory as soap bubbles, destined to burst almost as soon as they blew into existence. Groups of friends, rooms, streets, years, none of them would last. The illusion of stability was created by a concerted effort to ignore the chaos they were imbedded in. And so they ate, and talked, and enjoyed each other’s company; this was the way it had been in the caves, on the savannah, in the tenements and the trenches and the cities huddling under bombardment.

That’s what this book is about, over and above all the dozens of smaller stories it tells, and it’s a brilliant piece of art that can create that moment of revelation.

What isn’t working:

– Technology overreach. There is some seriously cool technology at play in Red Mars, and a lot of it makes sense. Watching people invent fantastical new ways to deal with the necessities of Mars feels believable, particularly when it’s mixed with strong characterization and what looks like solid research. But there’s one area of science where the advances in the book left me scratching my head. There’s some very important biotech being invented on Mars that has nothing to do with the Martian environment. As the book goes on, more and more of the plot hinges on the invention of this technology. It was really the only way in which the book disappointed me, and it left a bad taste in my mouth as I enjoyed everything else.

– Character creep. One of book’s biggest strengths is its characters, but partway through, two of them begin to melt together. There are, I think, a few potential narrative explanations for this. The two have a very close relationship, and there’s been a major recent sea-change in it that could conceivably lead one of them to start becoming like the other without realizing it. But that’s left undeveloped—if it’s intended, it may be a bit too subtle, and either way, the ramifications of that sea-change moment didn’t feel fully explored to me.

That’s it! Small-potatoes stuff, as you’d expect with a bestselling, award-winning novel, but it was there nonetheless. And you know what? I bet both of these things came up during edits, and at some point both author and editor said, “It’s working well enough, let’s get it out the door.” That’s how the process often works; you can keep tinkering and tinkering searching for perfection and never find it, or you can settle for “great” and then go write the next book.

The Building Blocks of Fantasy – Other Fantasy

This is the fourth in a series of weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of great fantasy. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.

I suppose it’s no great secret that in order to write great fantasy, you need to read a lot of fantasy. I make mention of it here nevertheless because I sometimes catch beginning writers either underestimating or misunderstanding the reading they should be doing.

Reading in the genre is important because your fantasy novel exists in conversation with all the other fantasy novels your reader has read. That’s how the human brain works—it’s always looking for connections between previous experiences and new ones. So if I write gritty, dark military fantasy, it may astonish readers who’ve never heard of Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, Glen Cook, et. al., but I’d better make sure I’m bringing something new to the table for anyone who is familiar with those authors.

And that last point is very important, because there’s a truth about writing fantasy that new authors sometimes miss:

Hardcore genre fans matter more than general readers.

I often hear people just getting into writing fantasy say that they want to write a book that appeals to a general audience. They want everyone to enjoy their books, not just genre fans. They want to write the next Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. That’s a good, noble, and important goal, but it’s putting the cart before the horse.

Your first audience, and therefore your most important audience, is the reader who’s looking for a book like yours. If you write military fantasy, you must impress the military fantasy reader first, so that they will turn to the military historical fiction reader or the high fantasy reader or the general fiction reader and say, “I know you don’t usually read stuff like this, but seriously, this book was so good you have to try it.” If you fail to impress that first reader, the hardcore genre fan, you’re not going to reach the general audience you want to get to. Fantasy works that develop a general audience always develop a genre audience first—even if that genre audience is the acquisitions team at a publisher which then realizes the general-audience potential of the book and works to get it in front of general-fiction readers from day one.

Hopefully that’s established in your mind that you need to read deeply in your genre, but just in case, here’s another reason: readers, whether they’re agents and editors or just the regular kind, will not be enchanted by something they’ve seen before, even if an author hasn’t seen it.

Again, that statement may seem like common sense, but I often find authors just starting their careers ignoring it. Instead they’re afraid that if they read too many books that are like theirs, their imaginations will be squelched and whatever they write will become derivative.

There may be real risk there—I’m far from qualified to speculate about what makes each individual author’s imagination tick—but I will say that all of the successful fantasy authors I know are rabid fantasy readers, and I think there’s a reason for that. If you rehash the quest fantasy or the orphan-who-finds-out-he’s-a-wizard fantasy or the gritty-reimagining-of-the-Hundred-Years-War fantasy while thinking you’re writing something readers have never seen before, you’re in trouble. It’s very dangerous for a reader to start thinking that your book is just like title X, because that’s just one step away from “I’ve seen this before. Meh.” That risk will always exist, because you can’t read everything, but you should do your best to minimize it.

So I offer the following advice: Before you decide to call a book finished, find out whether there’s anything else like it. Take your log line (a one-sentence description of your book—“An orphan boy finds out he’s secretly a wizard and goes to wizarding school” for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) to your local SF/F bookstore, or the library, or a book club, or a Goodreads discussion board, and ask if anyone has read something like that. Then read the novels that come up during the conversation, and make sure that you’re contributing something new to the genre.

The Building Blocks of Fantasy – Magic

This is the third in a series of weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of great fantasy. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.

If there’s any sort of structure to these posts, it’s a movement from more objective elements of worldbuilding to less objective ones. To continue that trend, I bring you magic.

Like myth, magic can be tricky to define. It takes numerous forms, each highly dependent on the culture it belongs to. Is a microwave magic? Is a lightning bolt? Is the Eucharist? And why or why not, under which circumstances?

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to use a definition of magic that I find particularly useful to storytellers: “Magic is a powerful force that some people can command and others can’t.”

The Eucharist would pass the test. The microwave would be a bit dodgier—if you had so little experience with modern technology that you didn’t know that punching buttons typically makes a microwave-shaped device do something, it would be pretty magical, but in modern Western society it’s decidedly mundane. The lightning bolt would fail the test because it can’t be controlled by an elite (yes, I know lightning can be simulated in a laboratory environment, but that’s not the same, and anyone can use a lightning rod).

So that gives us a bit of a sense of what magic is. Now why does magic—and this definition of magic—matter?

In part, it matters because it’s a genre marker. The presence of magic is one of the things that separates fantasy from other forms of fiction. Take the magic out of Harry Potter and you have a boarding-school story about a traumatized orphan. Take the magic out of The Lord of the Rings and you don’t have much at all—it’s that integral to the plot.

On a more technical level, magic provides an incredibly potent tool for creating a sense of awe—another thing fantasy readers often look for in a book. Because by definition magic works for some people and not for others, it will appear awesome (in the old, literal sense of evoking awe) to some people in your book, and that sense of awe, properly described, can evoke the same in a reader. John Tristan’s descriptions of dragons in The Sheltered City (I’m cheating here and citing something I worked on), are one of the most memorable parts of the book for exactly that reason.

Finally, magic provides you with a potent plot lever. I wrote recently about Jeff Vandermeer’s (over)use of a certain psychological principle as magic in Authority, but just because the tool can be overused doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. Power imbalances between characters, however they come about, create dramatic tension. You don’t need magic to create a power imbalance, and you do need power imbalances in your narrative that don’t come from magic. But when properly used (see Bayaz in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy), magic can create great interpersonal tension.

That’s why magic matters. How do we create believable magic then?

Like history and myth, magic comes from real-world analogues. I don’t want to go deeply into “systems” of magic here because not all magic is systematic, so I’m going to restate my definition again: magic is a powerful force that some people can command and others can’t. One way to create believable magic is to find a potent force that fails the magic test in our world (like lightning) and give characters in your world the ability to control it. When you do that, you appeal to the part of your reader that yearns to control the uncontrollable.

Beyond that, anywhere you find a power imbalance in the real world, you find a situation that can be recast to believably inform the magic in your world.

If you’ve ever watched someone struggle to get their cell phone to send a text message while someone else uses theirs to check their e-mail, book a flight, and make a dinner reservation, you’ve seen one kind of power imbalance that could be used to inform magic in a narrative. If you’ve ever watched someone struggle to open a jar while the person next to them just twists and presto!, you’ve seen another. And if you’ve ever walked blithely through a building that no wheelchair user could enter, you’ve seen a third.

Those situations may not seem magical, but in their hearts they can be. The person who yearns to be able to understand that damn thing in their hand, or open the salsa without asking for help, or see the museum that ignored the ADA, is the person in a fantasy narrative who can’t use the magic. And the person who does those things without thinking twice is the mage who doesn’t understand their own power.

The flashy, common, external representations of magic (fireballs, lightning bolts, earthquakes, et al.) are just candy coating, and you can pick whichever flavors you like for them. What matters is the power imbalance that lies behind magic, and as long as you nail that, your magic will feel real to readers.

Continue reading the series here.