Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Stross Formula

Jonathan McCalmont originally attempted to write a review of the new Charles Stross novel Saturn’s Children, but he quickly realized that the review (and the novel) would be better served instead by an article on the formulaic nature of Stross’s writing and why it is ultimately a bad thing.

McCalmont writes:
As a writer of spy stories, Stross is just as heretical as Le Carre in that both steadfastly refuse to write textbook thrillers. Le Carre’s heresy lies in his prioritisation of character not only as a motor for the plot but as the entire basis for the book. Stross, by contrast uses characters and plots as information firewalls, their points of view and pacing serving to dictate what idea the audience is introduced to at a given time. For example, when Freya from Saturn’s Children is upgraded from sexbot to assassin, it is simply a means for Stross to shift from conveying basic information about his world to conveying the kind of secret political information that only a trained assassin and political operative might have access to. In other words, Stross’ books are built around his speculation.

I want to quote larger and large chunks of McCalmont’s essay, but instead I’ll just say to read the essay.

Here is one more, though:
However, as more and more books have been produced it has become increasingly clear that Stross’ fondness for infodumping is not a flaw in his writing style, it is the result of a deliberate decision to convey certain kinds of information in certain kinds of ways. In short, Stross has a style of his own, he is not bad at plot or characterisation, he simply has no interest in either of them.

This, I think, is my basic problem with more than half of Stross’s fiction: The friggin information overwhelms “story”. While McCalmont recognizes that for Stross information = story, it’s a pain in my ass as a reader and something I don’t think I want to read very often. It’s why I’ve been pulling away from more and more of Stross’s work, except for the Laundry novels and the Merchant Princes. There is still a sense of character and plot, and perhaps a sense of whimsy or action. There is stuff going on that I’m still interested in reading about. Not so with something like Halting State or, damn me, Accelerando.

When reading a synopsis of a Stross novel there is a sense of an exciting story about technology and some sort of action. It sounds exciting. And then I start reading the book and I’m weighed down with information and the prose.

If you don’t want to read the whole article, go skip down to the last paragraph (not reproduced here) and if that’s not enough to make you want to go back and read from the start, I don’t know what is.

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