Monday, June 21, 2010

On Dystopian SF and Show vs. Tell

I finished The Difference Engine this weekend. I picked the book up because of its seminal place in the steampunk canon, and because I've been meaning to read more Gibson than Burning Chrome. I think I'm going to either have to reread it or let it drift through my neurons for a while before I get the full impact of the story, but I liked it. I mostly enjoyed it for the alternate history, rather than the plot, though. I kept thrilling at the details of "Oh look, he's here! They mentioned that!" when I should maybe have been thrilling at the action scenes or mystery. Not that I didn't enjoy that stuff too, but it was the historical aspects I found most interesting. I might have chucked the book at a wall* if it had been set in the present or future.

Why? Because I haven't met a futuristic-dystopian-slash-cyberpunk novel I've liked. Granted, I haven't read a huge number of them**, but they all seem to have the same "trope" of not answering very many of the questions raised unless the reader's willing to commit to massive brainpower and possibly rereads as well.

This is well and good, I'm not slagging cyberpunk as a genre at all, I love the ideas and extrapolation, and there are surely millions of people who don't mind doing the thinking—but I'd like to know more about the bad guys and their motives than just oblique references. If nothing else, I'd like to feel more of a definitive conclusion than what I've encountered, which is along the lines of "There was fighting. John was injured. Three months later, John had healed. He knew that justice had been served, though at no time did anyone tell him who'd been behind The Plan."*** I'd like Sherlock to come in and say, "Well, obviously, my dear Watson…."

I'm starting to suspect I'm simply not the right audience for dystopian mysteries. I'm also starting to suspect I'm in the minority, or there's some sort of disconnect between writers/publishers and readers. It's probably me, though. This isn't the first time I've Just Not Gotten Something.

However, realizing what my problem with cyberpunk/dystopia is, got me thinking about the show vs. tell dichotomy. You know, how you're supposed to show everything and tell nothing, except for when it's t.m.i. or slows down the pacing? My tastes lean towards showing enough, in a clear enough manner, that no one's left wondering who the bad guy actually was. When I'm writing, I try to make everyone's motives clear and not keep the reader at the same level of confusion as the protagonist. When I'm reading, I'm most satisfied when the author does the same. In my mind, there's nothing worse**** than a character who exists in a state of panic/reaction/confusion for 80% of the novel, then suddenly switches to knowing what's going on. This is especially true if they then refuse to share their newfound knowledge with the reader.***** There's one writer I'll never return to because they've done that to me too often.

I'm not saying my opinions are The Opinions To Follow (heavens forbid). I know that logically there must be people with different tastes and opinions who will gladly read the kinds of fiction that peeve me. I'm simply, for better or worse, outlining one piece of my writing philosophy, and maybe getting some acolytes for my trouble.

One last thought: Somewhere out there is a dystopian mystery that does explain things to my satisfaction. When I find it, I'll let you know.

* not really
** four
*** and yes, that kind of ending also popped up in The Difference Engine
**** probably an exaggeration, but danged if I can think of something I hate more right now
***** Gibson doesn't do this, from what I've seen


Dystopian Journal said...

Good post. I think character development is often lacking in dystopian fiction because of the emphasis on the social message typically followed by setting development. I personally really enjoy the genre and I hope to see it get better. Dystopia and uptopian fictions have much to teach us.


Darryl Parker
Dystopian Journal

Kara said...

I've found I like dystopian sci-fi, but not so much the cyberpunk element incorporated...

And being a MS teacher, I also read a lot of YA lit. I've read some YA steampunk and so far, I've been very happy with it. I'm under the impression that many YA books are actually better than books written for adults b/c of the attention span of adolescents.

Anassa said...

@ Dystopian Journal: I agree. It seems with a lot of genre novels, either you get lots of tech and message and action, or you get good characterization. There are exceptions, of course, but I'd like there to be more of them. Definitely agree with you there, and about the teaching potential.

@ Kara: I don't mind it either, esp. since I keep reading dystopian sci-fi. I think it's the cyberpunk element that gets to me, when it's there (or pseudo-cyberpunk high-tech worlds). Not that I'm not a computer junky, but there's something about how computers are portrayed in cyberpunk that doesn't jive with me well.

I suspect you're right about YA. My reading list's so long it may take me a while to get to most of what I want to read, though. (I'm not classing steampunk as dystopia. All the steampunk I've read has been positive with the exception of Difference Engine is. I quite like the genre.)