Okay. I’ve got a collection of short stories coming out through Fablecroft. The cover looks beautiful. The scutwork is done. There’s a nifty range of tales in it, including a decent spread of new and unpublished material as well as some works that haven’t seen print in a while. I’d call it a decent representation of what I do, I guess. I should probably talk it up a bit, but I’ve never been good at that. I have always preferred the work to speak for itself. What else are stories supposed to do?
What I would like to do is talk a little bit about storytelling, and complexity.
I can clearly remember how and when I started reading science fiction. Someone – probably my mother – found a worn paperback copy of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Triplanetary in a secondhand bookshop in Cairns. I recall being a bit dubious, because prior to that my only ‘grown-up’ reading had been retellings of myths and legends, and the Conan novels I found on the shelves of a house my family rented. Still, once I got a few pages into the story, I was off and running.
It was the start of a lifelong love – so far, at least. The ideas! The ray-guns and space-ships! The aliens! The larger-than-life heroic good guys and the fiendishly vile bad guys! For a kid of maybe seven, it was the best thing ever. I gobbled up the entire Lensman series as quickly as my mother could track them down, and then read my way through a fistful of Smith’s other works. And from Smith, I went on to Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein and thence to Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock and Theodore Sturgeon and… well, hell. I figure you probably know. The thing is that over the years, there was a progression to my reading, and I realise now it’s mirrored by a progression in the kind of stories I write. For lack of a better word, I’m going to talk about this idea in terms of dimensions: first, second, and third.
The first story dimension is excitement. Rockets and rayguns and robots, oh my! Stories that live in this dimension are pretty much the same, no matter what genre you put them in. Good guys, bad guys, classic conflicts – only the scenery really changes. If it’s a Western, they use six-shooters. If it’s Science Fiction, they’ve got ray-guns. And in Fantasy, they sling swords and spells.
I don’t think I ever managed to publish a story like that. By the time I started writing, the markets were all gone, more or less – at least, for the short stuff. You still see plenty of it out there, flying the pulp flag high, drawing the crowds who just want a bit of fun while they’re in flight or on the commuter train or wherever. I salute the writers who can do this stuff and do it well, and I’ll happily admit I’d love some of their income – but I can’t even really read this kind of thing any more. Not even at novel length. (Maybe especially not at novel length!)
Actually, that’s not true. Excitement was and remains my first literary love. When I read to enjoy my reading, I want to be intrigued and challenged by a book — but I still want to find the story exciting. Capital-ell Literature, in which nothing much happens for a couple-hundred pages but the characters mooch around the scenery emoting like first-year drama students bores me to death. No: I don’t give a toss how beautiful your prose may be. I don’t care how elegantly and delicately you evoke the vague fear that leaving your Earl Grey to steep too long will leave you with a bitter aftertaste. It’s goddam boring. I can make my own cup of tea at any time, thanks — and I wouldn’t drink Earl Grey to save your life. So when I’m stuck in the car, waiting for my kids to come out of music practice or drama or whatever, I’ll often resort to reading a first-dimension book. Something from Dean Koontz or Stephen King or Eric Lustbader or Lee Childs.
Why? Because I can read them in twenty-minute snatches and not have to work hard to catch up if there’s a week between sessions. Because I don’t care if the book falls to the floor of the car and acquires… unsavoury stains. Because I’m not reading them for intellectual challenge: I’m reading them because I’m stuck in a crud-filled car with nothing useful to do for twenty minutes. For such situations, first-dimension books are perfect.
Now: as I said, when I have time, when I want to enjoy my reading, I need more from a book. And that brings me to the idea of the second dimension… and I’m going to pause right here, because there’s a lot more to be said and not really enough space right now. I’ll run this over a few blog posts, so if you’re curious, stick around. Next post: “The Second Dimension of Storytelling — The Nifty Idea!”
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