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The Reviewer's Corner - The Wantonness of Invention
Posted: Sunday, November 29, 2015 1:53 PM
Joined: 5/12/2015
Posts: 41

Background note: I've recently joined a structured review group, which puts me in the position of seeing a lot of self-published books being offered. The group’s prevents us from posting reviews of books that receive a personal rating of less than 3-stars. Since only about half the books coming my way receive a “3”, I think it useful to point out some of the trends that I’ve noticed. Your mileage may vary—but at least there might be some notes here worthy of your attention. 




 The gift of human society means that we are all surrounded by interesting stories all the time. Which leads to the advice frequently offered to writers just starting out: to start small, and start local.Write what you know,” in other words. 


 Interestingly, the strongest tendency I’m seeing these days is to go in just the opposite direction: to go “big”. Places where no one has ever been. Experiences which no one has ever had. Sights that no one has ever seen.  


In other words: speculative fiction. Steampunk. Science fiction. Fantasy. (I don’t include Horror because I don’t read it — God knows I’m horrified enough without getting any extra fictional doses). 


The tendency is understandable because a lot of fiction currently making cash registers ring is also speculative. It seems like a natural path to eventually having your own island, and receiving honors from the Queen. 


Also, from the point of view of a beginner (very often a younger person) it seems an easier task to create a world than to report on a mundane world where the rest of us are just doing mundane things.  


If only creating a world was that easy (which it isn’t).  


The title of this post comes from a contemporary review of Gulliver’s Travels: a book which most readers will agree contains “wanton invention”. The text is intended to make a mockery of almost everything: offering one strange and startling scene after another. Strange and startling. But, at the same time, parallel and believable (maps are offered, showing where each country is located). Each location is complete in itself, and completely convincing. I have no doubt that Dr Gulliver spent a considerable time living in a republic of horses — and I have no doubt that he was sad to leave it. Of course he urinated on a palace to put out a fire. That’s exactly what I would have done. 


 Compared to that text, and other benchmarks of speculative fiction, most modern self-published work is extremely thin. Which is to say that it’s unconvincing.  And it often leaves me looking for “something more”.  Since we’ve started using archaic words: I would contrast “wantonness of invention” with the “paucity of invention” which I generally see now.  


Particularly true for Steampunk: one of my favorite flavors. The best of this genre — Mark Hodder, for example — leverages the quaint, starched, and vastly hypocritical background of Victorian London to present a whole parade of startling ideas: flying machines, eugenics, time travel. The ideas just keep coming: a parade of the unexpected, and a fully realized world. Which means: it feels “complete”, and it’s convincing. 


The worst Steampunk, by contrast, usually tosses in a self-propelled balloon — maybe a couple of gadgets — and proceeds with a generic mystery, a generic romance, or some strangely unfocused story about something, something, something. Some Steampunk doesn’t even have an amoral evil genius (which is kind of required, really). 


To conclude: speculative fiction, of all types, should be “thick” with ideas. “Thin” narratives are almost always unconvincing, and I usually put them aside without reading all the way through. Creating a world of your own is an interesting ambition. But, once you’ve begun, you’ve got to go all the way. Not halfway. Not a few little touches here and there. Too many ideas is far better than too few. But, sadly — again and again — too few is what I’ve been seeing.  


Until next time....  


--edited by nate1952 on 11/29/2015, 2:00 PM--


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