I recently began to reread a rollicking good science fiction novel. Expecting a great time revisiting characters and places I hadn’t been for several years, I found myself instead put off by the story.
At first I couldn’t identify the feeling except to say that while the characters were fine and the situation interesting, the two had not meshed to capture me in the net of the story this time. Since the first read, I’d read a novel by a second author whose set up was similar in many ways: both authors were women; both had a strong female protagonist, heavily based on biology with extreme attention paid to the logic of the aliens, an “environmental recovery”-style fable, intrigue and dissent, tension and interstellar consequences should the protagonist fail in her mission.
The second novel caught me in its net and I’m already hip deep into the story and seven chapters advanced. The first novel I’d stopped at chapter three and switched books.
Certainly it has to do with personal taste; I have no doubt that both authors have their cadre of fans. Both have been nominated or received awards (both have been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award…) and both have numerous publications both novel and short story.
But one of them has almost all of her novels still available on the bookshelf in paperback, the other has few of the novels still available ANYWHERE. The first novel of the one is difficult to find in any edition. The first novel of the second has both a 10th Anniversary Edition and a reissue in a new cover. Both first novels have Amazon.com rankings, naturally; one is #2.3 million; the other is #1.3 million.
Clearly THOSE facts have nothing to do with MY personal taste and everything to do with an admittedly fickle fandom.
This bothered me because I WANT to be the one with a celebratory Anniversary Edition and a first novel ranking in the one millions instead of the two millions!
What IS it that makes one novel stick with people and the other slide off? I spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about these two books and have come up with the following conclusions:
1) While both books start with a “bang” and with a spectacular entrance by the main character, the one that sticks begins in a PLACE that the author has been to many times and can lovingly detail with, NOT travelogue accuracy but sensory accuracy. The one that slides off can’t be a place the author has been – it starts on Mars – and so while it is detailed in scientific accuracy, there IS no sensory accuracy because she can’t do it because she hasn’t been there. (This is not to say it can’t be done; I doubt very much that David Brin has ever been to Kithrup or that Allen Steele has ever been to Coyote…)
2) The initial relationship with the protagonist’s Human companions is important. HOWEVER, in the story that sticks, that relationship is, while affectionate, also involves verbal sparring, teasing and a general sense of free-wheeling interaction. In the story that slides off, that Human relationship is, while affectionate, involves chatting amiably and involves no poking fun of and no relational tension.
3) The relationship between the Human protagonist and the primary alien protagonist is, in the story that sticks initially BAD! The one alien interferes with the Human, breaks several unspoken “laws” in her book and she generally wants to throw the creature out the window. In the book that slides off, we see a long-term relationship with clear affection but so long established that there are no sparks – which means for me, that there’s little interest.
4) The secondary relationship in both books is between the primary antagonist and a military or quasi-military character who has his (of course) own way of doing things and scowls down at the main character, implying that there’s no chance she can do anything right and if she wants to play the game, it had better be by HIS rules or she won’t be playing at all. HOWEVER, in the story that sticks, that relationship has clearly identifiable romantic possibilities. In the story that slides off, the character’s married status precludes a romantic relationship with the “enemy” and is purely professional.
5) In both books, the problem is interstellar, broad-based and threatening in every possible way. HOWEVER, in the story that sticks, the threat is to Earth and a slip up on the protagonist’s part could spell the destruction of OUR homeworld. In the story that slides off, the threat is to an alien homeworld and while the protagonist may in fact slip up, Earth is in only very minor danger.
So, do I have a formula for a successful novel?
I don’t know, but I plan on finding out when I start my next book soon.