August 11, 2013


I recently returned to an old novel that was once one of my favorites. Written by SZ and published in 2000, its 432 pages look at how alien intelligences whose world is dying find a new home in the clouds of Venus just as humans set out to colonize those same skies. It explores the question of what it is that cedes a world to intelligence – usefulness or location. The aliens, while extremely strange in biology are very understandable psychologically.

Not long before that, I reread another old novel that is one of my favorites of all time. Written by JC and published in 2004, its 464 pages begin with a salmon researcher who is drawn into a mystery with the visit of an alien who is a fellow researcher but who believes that her work will shed light on the disappearance of all life in a section of interstellar space. It explores the question of whether or not an intelligence that devours all life in its path has a right to continue to exist. The aliens have evolved from their worlds of origin and respond to their environment in ways consistent with that – no matter how strange they are to us.

I found myself completely dissatisfied with the first after this second read and I have reread the second with joy three times.

Both are written by women. Both are published. Both deal with aliens. Why am I bored with one yet return to the other over and over?

After I put the first away, I sat down to analyze the two books: 

1)      The first book flips from the alien’s point of view (more than one) and the Human point of view (more than one). [NOTE: This is what I did in my novel at BAEN, INVADER’S GUILT, though I dropped the alien POV in one of my revisions.] While it doesn’t always bother me, there has to be a compelling reason to show the story from multiple points of view and while there was here, I think the fractured point of view and various internal voices (in a sense there were EIGHT characters here…) pulled me out of the story rather than illuminating it. The second book has a single point of view and allows for interesting internal monologue [NOTE: I’ve done this with my current work in progress, OMNIVORE’S DEBT.] This also had the effect of me getting comfortable “in the skin” of the protagonist and understanding her so well that I could say when something happened, “Well, she’s going to hate that!”

2)     The first book draws the alien world of Venus intimately and after the first fourth of the book, I felt like I knew it well. The author also worked out the biology and ecology of the alien’s homeworld and the depictions of it dying of something that is never revealed clearly implies that it is something that they brought on by themselves (as we have polluted and abused our world and supposedly caused global warming. The warning is subtle but clear.) The second book takes place mostly at Norcoast, a research station in the Pacific Northwest/Canada, so the depiction of alien worlds isn’t necessary. Where SZ spends time developing a world, JC spends time developing character – and it shows. However, the state of Earth is such that it’s obvious that we barely caught ourselves in time to keep from destroying the place – and ourselves – forever. I feel very much a part of the world here and even though it’s nowhere I have ever visited, I feel close to the land and the details with which it is described allow me to create the place vividly in my mind. [NOTE: I’ve done the same in my own two books, IG and OD – one takes place on the alien world Wheet, the other in northern Minnesota near Ely.]

3)     The first is a stand-alone novel and while it needed to be, it left me wanting more. That’s why I continued reading this author’s science fiction – until she stopped writing it. The second is the first in a trilogy, though the author has hinted that the main character might come back and the writer is still writing science fiction though she’s currently working on her fantasy novels. For this reason, perhaps it isn’t fair to say that while the main character in the first book has disappeared from memory, the main character in the second is an imaginary person I’d love to meet. On the other hand, I still remember Charley from FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON and that is a stand-alone novel as well.
I looked at other aspects of the books as well, but these two are the most obvious to me – as well as the most useful to me becoming a better writer. To wit:

a)      Use a single character POV whenever possible and depart from that advice only when the STORY demands it.

b)     Springing from the old adage, “Write what you know.” Use worlds with which you are familiar if at all possible. If it’s not possible, then work on the fictional world by setting short stories there first to hammer out details. [I’ve done this in my CONFLUENCE OF HUMANITY vs THE EMPIRE OF MAN universe.]

c)      Write every novel so that it can stand alone.

Anything else anyone wants to add?


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