I don’t pay a lot of attention to literary prizes as they tend to ignore the genres I love. But the Guardian are currently running their alternative to the Booker and the long list includes some top quality sf+f. So if you enjoy that sort of thing then you might want to go look at their list in search of some more varied reading. I particularly recommend RJ Barker’s thrilling Age of Assassins or Jeannette Ng’s incredibly atmospheric Under the Pendulum Sun.
The phrase “difficult book” is such a loaded one, it’s hard to even say it without feeling weighed down. There’s an implication that this won’t be fun but that if you can’t get through it, then the problem is with you as a reader. That’s a puritanical approach to culture that I just can’t get behind.
An Important Book?
The Three-Body Problem comes loaded with that baggage. One of the most popular science fiction novels ever published in China, it was translated into English by American author Ken Liu. Its publication by a mainstream anglophone publisher was a groundbreaking moment. When the translated version won a Hugo award, it felt like recognition of the importance of international voices. Within sci-fi circles, that makes The Three-Body Problem a big deal.
As I started reading The Three-Body Problem, I could tell that it wasn’t popular for its accessibility. The prose and pacing feel old-fashioned. The structure is strange and sometimes uncomfortable. The exposition is sometimes intrusive.
The Chinese context adds to the challenge for a western reader. The first tenth of the book is set during the Cultural Revolution. For Chinese readers, the significance of events would be obvious. Western readers will need the footnotes and I’m sure I missed many implied connections. Once the story skips forward to the modern era, life in China is just alien enough to put bumps in the western reader’s road.
Then there’s the science. This is a book about physics. The science is central to the story and the protagonist achieves his goals by grappling with it. Though the author explains enough to make it comprehensible, it’s still challenging in places. This is hard science fiction in both meanings of that phrase.
This book has earned great prestige within western sci-fi circles but will be challenging for most western sci-fi readers. It’s practically the definition of a difficult book.
My Reading Experience
For me, difficult books are usually an emotionally unengaging experience. The more I’m challenged by the book, the less I’m engaged with the characters. Stopping to make sense of it all doesn’t make for a smooth read. They can be useful in learning technique, but they aren’t often much fun, and I like my leisure time to be fun.
This one wasn’t like James Joyce’s Ulysses, where I wanted to throw the book across the room, and which I’ve not finished after 19 years. But I certainly wasn’t feeling the thrill of reading, wanting to dive straight into each new chapter. I only cared about one character, and he was a grumpy cop cliché.
And yet, despite my cynicism about difficult books, I found this one rewarding. I don’t read a lot of hard sci-fi, the works focused on science rather than futuristic adventures. It was satisfying to read something clever with science at its core. It was also intriguing to see recent Chinese history through the lives of these characters and to read a story set in an unfamiliar society. The story didn’t engage my emotions as much as an author like John Scalzi does, but it really got its hooks into my brain. I left feeling unsettled yet intrigued.
Sometimes it can be good to read the difficult books. Not because hard work makes you better or gets you into some imaginary club of well-read readers, but because any book people place value on must contain something of interest. In the right frame of mind, that something can be well worth your time. I had to set aside my comfort-seeking brain to read this one, and that’s not something I want for all my reading. But I’ll be doing it again soon to read the next one in this series, feeling both thrilled and daunted at what I’ll find there.
Human life is driven by emotion. Yet most history books show little feeling, focusing on facts over experiences. This is particularly true of military history, despite the intense emotions war evokes, from the exhilaration of combat to the depths of grief.
The Unwomanly Face of War breaks this pattern in extraordinary style.
A Powerful Read
The Unwomanly Face of War was researched and written by journalist Svetlana Alexievich. It details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. When it was first published in 1985, it was a groundbreaking work, revealing a side of the war that fitted poorly with the USSR’s official accounts. Extraordinarily, despite its huge significance and international impact, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Most of the book is filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war. These provide powerful testimonies to the experiences of these soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. From saving lives by leaping upon burning tanks to losing a baby while hiding in a swamp, both the details and the way they are presented catch at the heart in a way that most military history doesn’t.
In this book, we read the human experience of war in a way seldom seen elsewhere.
The Author’s Shadow
Like any history book, this isn’t a simple presentation of facts, but their careful cultivation to prove a point. Alexievich is open about this, making her role explicit throughout. She describes finding and meeting these women, talking with them, and making difficult decisions about what to include.
Making the audience aware of the author can often create a sense of distance. In this case, it brings us closer to the story. Alexievich describes her own reactions and those of the women to being asked about their lives. The way the war still affects them decades later adds to the power of what these veterans have to say.
Another Side of Humanity
This book is important because it shows the underrepresented role of women in fighting the Second World War. It explores the extra challenges they faced and the way the war transformed their lives. It pays tribute to their courage, skill, and tenacity.
In doing so, it reveals how incomplete our view of military history is. These women struggle to express their stories, for a range of social, political, and personal reasons. Yet they are able to reveal aspects of war that few men could discuss, indoctrinated as we are to bury our feelings and hide our weaknesses. I have read dozens, probably hundreds of books based on men’s accounts of war, and never felt like I had a complete view of it as a human experience. The Unwomanly Face of War fills an important gap in that picture.
Reading these stories, it feels like an act of madness to have ignored them for so long. But perhaps that ignorance was protective, a way of hiding ourselves from the traumatic reality of conflict. Never having been a combatant, I’ll never truly know, and I’m grateful for that. But I’m also grateful to Svetlana Alexievich for revealing to me another face of war.
Cornwall might seem like an odd setting for a post-apocalyptic novel. But Emily Nation, Alec McQuay’s dark story of family and adventure, shows what a perfect place it is to show characters living on the edge.
The Edge of History
By their nature, post-apocalyptic novels are about living on the edge. The characters struggle to survive in broken cities and barren wastelands. Their societies reflect the jagged outer edge of history, a moment in which civilisation has collapsed, leaving us wondering if it can ever be rebuilt.
That rebuilding is central to Emily Nation. Generations on from a destructive war, the assassin Emily Nation is living in Camborne, a town rebuilt from the ruins. Here, families live lives of relative peace, supported and protected by the likes of Emily. Life hangs by a tenuous thread, and the swiftness with which Emily wipes out her targets is a reminder of how quickly anyone could be snuffed out. But at least the citizens of Camborne are rebuilding with good intent.
Down the road, life in Penzance is very different. Crime lords are rebuilding an economy based on brutality, prostitution, and forced labour. When Emily falls foul of one of these crime bosses, her friends and family suffer the consequences. The peace of Camborne is violated by outsiders, just as a reader’s sense of peace and security is violated by the post-apocalyptic ruins.
Our future balances on a knife edge between prosperity and collapse into McQuay’s speculative ruins. And as the story unfolds, the future Camborne joins us there.
The Edge of Britain
Cornwall is a perfect setting for such a story because it is already a land on the edge. Laying at the south-western extremity of Britain, it is geographically isolated. Even once you get to Cornwall, it can easily take two hours to reach Penzance. Most of the county lies within easy travel of the coast, where rugged cliffs mark the edge of land and sea.
Throughout its history, the people of Cornwall have found themselves living on the economic edge. The food and money provided by fishing are vulnerable to weather and the shifting shoals, fishermen vulnerable to storms. In the tin mines, men literally scraped a living from the dirt, again risking their lives for jobs that could vanish when a seam ran out, and that disappeared forever in the 1980s. The modern economy, dominated by tourism, offers the uncertainties of seasonal work.
This creates a background note of anxiety that matches the breath-taking bleakness of the coastline and its abandoned mines. That anxiety fosters a conservatism that led many in Cornwall to vote to leave the European Union, despite the benefits it brought the county. Living on the edge means living in uncertainty, and that pushes people towards the comfort of a conservative outlook.
The Forward Edge of Progress
This is where Emily Nation takes a different path from its setting.
The book embraces sexual diversity, starting with the protagonist’s marriage to another woman. It holds up alternative family units as just as valid as the traditionally mum, dad, and their own kids. It shows the systemic oppression that comes when desperate people accept desperate jobs, giving cruel economic masters power over them. Racism is exposed in all its hypocrisy through the struggles of mutant miners. The biggest driver for destruction is effectively the arms trade.
The values of the book lie left of centre, at least in a British context. Having a gay female protagonist shouldn’t be unusual, yet is still a radical act, pushing genre fiction towards greater representation. The women in the book are just as capable as the men in exactly the same fields, and it’s not an issue. This is a progressive book that lives on the edge in a positive sense, at the forward edge of current reforms in society and representation.
The Two Edges
Like the blade that features prominently in its final act, Emily Nationhas two edges. One is a dark edge, exposing the insecurities that come not only in a post-apocalyptic future but in any part of the world where life and livelihoods are uncertain. The other edge shines brightly, slicing through traditional expectations, joining with other great speculative fiction in trying to set people free.
Sure, this is an action story, one dominated by fights, chases, and explosions. But it’s an action story with a thematic richness, made all the more satisfying by its distinct and evocative setting.
There’s a certain paradox to reading. It’s about connecting to others, but we do it alone. When we read, we’re connecting to another person and their imagination, but not to someone we know.
That’s part of why I like conventions, and why I’ve recently joined a Terry Pratchett book group. It’s also why I often read books people recommend to me, even if other books appeal more at first glance. I want to share my reading, to talk about it, to make connections.
After all isn’t that what books are for?
I’m halfway through reading Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel. It’s a fascinating exploration of the physical causes behind history. In particular, it looks at why society developed so differently on different continents.
I’m not flagging this up for history readers. Honestly, I’m behind the curve on this one, and most of you have probably heard of it already. But for the fantasy writers, especially those interested in world building, I really have to recommend this book. It looks at how physical geography can lead to differences in technology that shape almost everything in society. It’s a lesson in cause and effect on an epic scale. Thinking about how the world works in the way that Diamond does could help you to flesh out complex and convincing worlds. And like any good history book, it’s full of interesting examples to be stolen and adapted for imaginary worlds.
Of course, history fans should read it too. This is a book that’s deeply shaped our perspective on history over the past twenty years. Much as I’m enjoying it now, I wish I’d got to it sooner.
Combining the familiar and the novel is one of the most important techniques for a storyteller.
I first learned about this through an article on Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics. The article’s author – sadly, I’ve forgotten who it was – highlighted how Kirkman provided his audience with something familiar and something new. The zombie survival story is one comic readers are used to. Kirkman’s soap opera-style storytelling had novelty for them. Familiarity made the comic accessible, novelty made it exciting, and a hit was born.
You could argue that the same formula, turned on its head, has helped the Walking Dead TV show. The soap-like personal dramas are appealing to a broad viewing audience that wouldn’t normally care about a zombie apocalypse. The formula works in reverse.
It’s a formula I’ve used recently in writing scripts for Commando comics. Commando‘s military adventure stories have a reputation for familiar tropes. They’re usually set during the Second World War. Gruff sergeants abound. Rivalries are overcome, leading to a particular sort of manly friendship. Though the publishers are working to broaden their stories, readers still have expectations, and that means there’s something familiar to work with.
This creates two obvious ways to combine the familiar with the novel. I can either change the setting and keep the tropes or I can keep to the usual setting but tell a different story. For my second Commando script, The Forlorn Hope, I took the former path. I wrote a story set in the Napoleonic Wars, but with the classic Commando dynamic of an indisciplined infantryman finding his place and learning to be a proper soldier. For the script I’m working on right now I’ve gone the other way. It’s set in the Second World War, but instead of focusing on the military it looks at the escape lines, the civilian resistance groups that smuggled Allied airmen out of Europe.
Any time you’re writing a story, it’s worth thinking about these elements. What’s familiar, to draw in your audience. What’s novel, to excite them and expand the boundaries of your genre. Combining the two can make great stories and, if done well, a satisfied audience.
My first Commando comic, To Win Just Once, will be out in April – more details here nearer the time. For updates on future releases, plus free short stories, sign up to my mailing list.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s award-winning novel Children of Time breaks one of the most common rules of good fiction. It’s a book that wouldn’t have worked without breaking that rule and which gains much of its power by breaking it. As such, it makes an important point about “rules” of writing and how they work.
And did I mention that it’s a damn good read? Because that’s going to be relevant later…
Adrift in Time and Space
Children of Time is set in the distant future. On a planet far from our own, scientists prepare an experiment in evolution. But just as they’re about to trigger the process, political dissent tears society apart. The experiment starts, transforming a planet, but not in the way the scientists planned.
Countless generations later, the desperate survivors of a dying Earth approach the planet. There they find a civilisation of highly evolved spiders protected by a technological ghost. As both humans and spiders struggle to make sense of their worlds, the stage is set for a dramatic clash of civilisations.
Explaining the Alien
One of the great joys of reading Children of Time is learning about the spider civilisation. As usual, Tchaikovsky brings a flair for invention and extrapolation, creating a society that makes sense but is utterly different from our own. Communication, social structures, technology, all are very different from those of humans. As the book progresses and the spiders evolve, they keep getting stranger and more fascinating.
To let us understand this society, Tchaikovsky often has to explain aspects of the spiders’ lives. From political changes to new inventions, there’s something to reveal in nearly every spider chapter. While some of this is shown through the spiders’ actions, we’re flat out told about much of it.
This goes against one of the most common pieces of advice given to new writers – “show don’t tell”. We’re taught to use action and implication to let readers work out what’s going on. It’s helpful advice, as it makes more engaging prose and lets readers feel smarter as they read. So how has a book that tells so much become a best-selling, award-winning, much-beloved success?
You’re Always Telling Something
One answer is that this book needed to tell. The appeal of the spider civilisation is how it works. To show this without telling would take hundreds more pages. It would be a drag on a tense and thrilling novel. A few paragraphs of explanation set the scene to let us get into the action.
Tchaikovsky’s skill as a storyteller plays a part. Sure, the explanations stand out as more expository than in many books, but they’re still a good read. He understands how to make this interesting.
But behind all this lies another issue – the limits of “show don’t tell”.
Writing involves telling. Any time we “show” a piece of information in a story, we do so by “telling” other things. To show that a character is upset I have to tell what he looks like and what he’s doing. To show that someone is smart I have to tell you about a clever thing she says or does.
In this case, telling us how the spider civilisation had progressed shows us that it is advancing. Telling us about individual social and technological developments shows us the outline of evolution in action.
It also gives us the knowledge to understand what later actions will show.
Context is Queen
“Show don’t tell” is invaluable writing advice. But asChildren of Time shows, it’s context dependent. What you show, and what you tell to show it, depends upon the story. As Terry Pratchett said, rules are there so that we think before we break them. Good writing follows the rules. Great writing knows when to break them.
Children of Timeis great writing.
I hate chosen one narratives for a bunch of reasons, but they boil down to determinism. If someone is genuinely fated to save the world the day, then their choices don’t matter to the outcome and neither do the actions of anybody else. It has been ordained that the chosen one, and nobody else, will thwart the villain. Free will is lost, as is some of the tension of not knowing the result.
This isn’t an absolute, and there are plenty of stories I enjoy despite having a chosen one (well played J K Rowling), but in general, it’s a trope I dislike.
Now I’m not sure where it’s boundaries are.
Starborn‘s protagonist, Kyndra, isn’t labelled as a chosen one. There’s no prophecy – at least none I’ve found in the first 400 out of 500 pages. But the way the story works is very much a chosen one narrative. Kyndra clearly has potential no-one else has. She’s set to wield powers no-one else can. That alone will make her the one who has to save the day.
At this point, we’re into a softer sort of determinism. One where, even without prophecy, Kyndra’s uniqueness ensures that only she can solve the world’s problems. One in which the other characters risk becoming set dressing, people whose actions will make no difference to the end result.
Noticing this got me asking other questions. It’s not uncommon for a character’s unique set of skills to make them the one to save the day. Is that a sort of determinism, or were there other options for a win? If one character is far more skilled and powerful than others, how far can the actions of the others matter? Is the gap between the deterministic world of the chosen one and stories of free will really all that clear?
I don’t have answers. I’m only just starting to consider this one. But at the very least, it’s fuel for thought.
Meanwhile, I’m eagerly waiting for Kyndra to save the day. Because I may hate chosen ones, but I like a good yarn.
From the very first page, Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun sets out its big themes of intertextuality and faith. Before we meet the protagonist, Catherine Helstone, we get an invented quote from a missionary espousing the need to spread the Christian faith in Arcadia. We’re in a story of interwoven texts, one that depicts a collision between two narratives of great power – European fairytales and Christianity. This is a book that dives deep into the playground of stories, and in doing so highlights their role in making faith possible.
But before I head down the rabbit hole (or up my own arse, depending on how you view these things), let’s start by defining some terms…
Intertextuality is the exploration of the relationship between texts. In books, it usually involves a writer leaning heavily on references to other stories. In the examples I like, recognising the references adds meaning to the story. But there are times when a story becomes virtually meaningless if you don’t know what it’s referring to. Intertextuality can be powerful and exciting, but it can also become a barrier to understanding (I’m looking at you, James Joyce).
Intertextuality has always been a part of fiction. This video by the Nerdwriter explores its part in modern Hollywood, while Extra Credits’ recent introduction to Frankenstein highlights its role in classic literature.
Faith is a tricky word. It means different things to different people. Here, I’m going to be talking about religious faith – a powerful belief in a particular view of reality and the moral teachings that arise from it, a belief that does not need to be grounded in evidence, but is more often rooted in the believer’s emotions and instincts about the world.
Blurring the Lines
Under the Pendulum Sun is rich with intertextual references. Each chapter starts with a quote from a book, letter, pamphlet, or diary that exists within its world. Its style is a reference to 19th-century fiction, including the gothic fears fostered by the likes of Mary Shelley and the more grounded stories of social and emotional struggle written by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters.
The references to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are particularly obvious, from Catherine’s encounter in the countryside with the master of her new home to the lost and damaged woman roaming the corridors of their house. It’s a nice example of intertextuality as bonus content. Having recently read Jane Eyre, I got a thrill from reading that the woman’s eyes darted with fire and from a description of the lights of the house seen from the countryside. But those parallels aren’t essential to understanding the story.
In a story about missionaries trying to spread the Christian faith, the references to the Bible are the most important. From a house named Gethsemane to the sermons and readings of the characters, Christian stories are everywhere. And of course….
Christianity is Intertextual
Christianity is based on a mass of interwoven texts. The books of the Bible, which existed separately before they were brought together in a single tome, are full of references to each other. The New Testament parables are stories within a story. If the accounts of his life are to be believed, Jesus was constantly whipping out a good story to make a moral point. It’s impossible to make sense of the Book of Revelation without referring back to preceding stories of the Jewish and early Christian communities. And our interpretations of this are built on two thousand years of people studying these books, a great mass of intertextual scholarship.
Where faith and intertextuality meet, there you find Christianity. That makes an intertextual story like this one perfect for exploring Christian faith.
Blurring the Lines
Intertextual stories blur the lines between one work and another. If you read both Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses, your reading of one will include memories of and reflections on the other. A Star Trek episode involving a holodeck Sherlock Holmes can’t exist without Conan Doyle’s stories, and someone who’s watched that episode may find images of Mr Data interrupting their reading of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The stories start to blend.
But they don’t just blur the lines between different fictions. Stories can blur the lines in our heads between what’s real and what isn’t. Stories help us to make sense of the world, and in doing so they open us up to believe in what they offer. Mr Benjamin, the fae servant in Under the Pendulum Sun, specifically says that he is looking to find his place in the Christian story. It’s a natural impulse, to want to be part of something that makes sense, and so we want to accept that perspective as real. However true they are or aren’t, religious stories blur the line between the world they present and the one we experience.
Faith is made possible through something akin to intertextuality.
Stories Versus Stories
In that sense, it might seem ironic that the fae in Under the Pendulum Sun are immune to Christianity’s charms. Like many fae in modern fantasy, they are bound by narratives. As Mr Benjamin says, “Fae are nothing but stories”.
But isn’t this itself a reflection on faith? If we already have a story, like the fae do, then it protects us from the power of other stories. No amount of reasoning will break through to the “true believer”, and neither will an alternative tale. Their faith, for better or for worse, is a story, one that is intensely powerful to them.
The characters in Ng’s book stumble through story after story. Stories about God, about themselves, even the stories they made up as children and that they now find reflected in the world of Arcadia. Their stories set their moral boundaries, as shown by Catherine’s behaviour, which shifts with the story she believes about herself. Even on the final page, it’s through reference to a story that they find a way to move on.
This is a story about stories. It’s a story about faith. And it’s a story about how deeply the two are tied.