Monday, September 5, 2011

The Reason I Don't Read Much Modern Sci-fi

There must be something seriously wrong with me. Last week I was listening to an audio-book version of a modern sci-fi novel and there was this scene in which a baby was sucked out of a ship into outer space. I laughed. I know, it's terrible, but I actually laughed out loud.

Before you condemn me, perhaps it will help if I explain.

I chose this particular audiobook because it was published by Penguin and it had enough good reviews for me to take a chance. The author has written a number of books and is regarded quite highly. I have to admit that the book did have its strong points. The science was interesting (albeit over my head at times) and the plot kept me intrigued.

There were, however, three problems.

The first was that there was an almost total lack of character development. I've noticed this as something of a feature in the "hard" sci-fi stories I've tried recently. When it comes to a plot in which the characters are essentially facing a live-or-die scenario, you should at least care whether or not they live or die. Sadly, in this last book, I honestly felt as though the people were just names. I didn't care for them one jot.

The second problem was that the story felt a little like an instruction manual. It was basically all tell and no show. At the half way point I realized that I couldn't remember hearing a single metaphor or simile. I spent the second half of the book listening out for them, but can tell you that I didn't hear one. Perhaps they were there, but I didn't hear any. I can tell you exactly where the action took place, but I couldn't tell you what any of those places looked like, because the author made no attempt to show me these places. He told me about them, but he didn't show them to me.

The final problem has to do with babies, which leads me to my opening statement. When it comes to creating tension, the author seems to have only one literary device at his disposal: infants in peril. Dotted throughout the book are babies lying in craters, babies being thrown, babies crying, babies, babies, babies. I thought perhaps it was just me, but I checked some of the few negative reviews and, sure enough, others were saying exactly the same thing. The author seems to have a problem with babies. At least in this book he does.

So when I came to the part where a hole opens in the hull of the ship, and someone inside looks out of the window into the vaccuum of space, and sees "a baby" floating by, I couldn't help myself. What little  tension had been built up during the scene cracked. I laughed.

I finished the book, realizing that the best line in the whole story was actually the very last one. Now if only the author had written the other 400 pages like that, I would have been a happy reader.

I recently started and abandoned a new sci-fi book. Popular author. Interesting premise. Good reviews. Forty pages in and I was bored. I'd heard so many names I didn't know who was who and I honestly didn't care anymore. At least the author was trying to show me the environment a little bit, but it was too little too late. All I started hearing was names, names, names... I stopped reading for fear that a baby might get into peril at some point and I'd laugh and feel like a terrible person.

At least now I know why I don't read much modern secular sci-fi. I am currently reading "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury first published in 1951, and loving it. It's sci-fi, but the main character (Montag) has soul and I care what happens to him. Prior to that I read "The Lathe of Heaven" by Ursula K. Le Guin published in 1971. Again, I really cared about the characters.

Perhaps I've been unlucky in my choices, but it worries me that I have to read books published half a century ago to get sci-fi stories with decent character development.

Is it just me? Am I unlucky? Or has anyone else noticed this?


  1. Hi Paul,
    I don't read science fiction but I agree whatever the genre you have to have good character development and the reader needs to really care about the characters fate.
    thanks Jennifer Ann

  2. Check out Kathy Tyers sci-fi. She has some older books with Bethany and some new projects coming up with Lord Marcher Press. I loooovvveed her Firebird trilogy.

  3. You are so hard-hearted, Paul. A baby floating by? Why even Mr Spock would've raised a sympathetic eyebrow at that. Seriously though, you've hit the nail on the head as far as too may names, scientific waffle, and no truly warm characters. But if that's what Sci-fi fans want, then let 'em have it!

  4. Perhaps you did a better job than the author, Paul, of 'showing' me that baby floating by. And even so, I laughed, too.

    Doesn't matter the genre, does it! Well-developed characters, a thick plot, and lots of showing win every time.

  5. I think it may also have been the way the narrator said it. He hesitated before saying "a baby" and the tone of voice he used suggested (at least, to me) that he also found it a tiny bit funny. Anyway, thanks guys. I don't feel so heartless now ;-).

    Thanks for the suggestion Dina. I'll keep an eye out for Kathy Tyer.