Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[process] Extracting the denominator - novelty vs familiarity

I just got finished reading naominovik's His Majesty's Dragon Powell's | Amazon ]. My reactions to that book are oddly mixed.

First, let me say that I enjoyed it a great deal. I recommend this book highly, especially if you are any fan of naval fiction, historical fiction, or, um, dragons. A lot of fun, a good read, and very cleverly drawn. That's my reader reaction.

My writer reaction is a far more varied kettle of sprat. I was disappointed at the deus ex machina (deus ex draconia?) ending. I wanted character cleverness or a well-foreshadowed plot twist rather than what actually resolved the climactic action.

Once I was done reading, I got caught up in mulling over the worldbuilding. This is Napoleonic Europe, with dragons. We're talking Highly Cool. But when I started thinking about the effects of practical flight on history, I struggled quite a bit. Ancient warfare and ancient seafaring would have been radically different, and history would have split some other direction. It's not alternate history, it's historical fantasy. But it's written like alternate history.

I am well aware that the same criticism can be leveled at Mainspring Powell's | Amazon ]. I think the difference is that with Mainspring, my tongue is firmly planted in my auctorial cheek, while Novik's book is written straight faced.

The biggest thing which nagged at me isn't a criticism of any sort of Novik's work or my own, but an observation about the art and craft of writing. The whole time I was reading His Majesty's Dragon, I could see Patrick Obrian and Anne McCaffrey hovering just off the edge of the page. Pern was especially beloved of me in my teens and twenties, and to this day I have a powerful affection for Aubrey and Maturin. This predisposed me, quite reasonably, to enjoy Captain Laurence and Temeraire. But at the same time, I kept wishing for something more.

It's a truism that our genre is a conversation. Stories and books get written in response to other work. Some of these conversations are shouting matches which last a lifetime. Yet as spec fic writers and readers, we are by definition novelty-seeking. (This is as opposed to romance or mystery, for example, which in their most stereotypical forms are about reduction of novelty through normalizing the Other and restoring whatever status quo was upset in the story problem.) This produces a critical tension between the experience of the familiar (Amazon.com's "if you like this, you'll like that" recommendation model) and the experience of the different (our foundational novelty seeking).

That blend between familiarity and novelty is one of the toughest challenges for a spec fic writer. Dial it very far out and you books like Vellum or City of Saints and Madmen, which audiences wrestle with. Yet some innovations, such as Neuromancer or Ringworld, spawn entire new threads of the conversation. A good helping of familiarity means the book appeals to a wide audience -- the choice Novik made, and rightly so, in His Majesty's Dragon. I've got Obrian and McCaffrey firmly in my head, so much of the dramatic and thematic vocabulary of her book is from old friends. Yet for me personally, novelty has a very high value.

In my own work, Rocket Science Amazon ] is (or should be) a very familiar book. It's basically the Hardy Boys Meet a Flying Saucer, with a slightly harder edge. Trial of Flowers Powell's | Amazon ] is a firm answer to City of Saints and Madmen, The Etched City and Perdido Street Station, but the entire subgenre of New Weird is about novelty, so it's an odd example. Mainspring is written in a (hopefully) familiar style, not challenging at the sentence level or the scene level as Trial is, but with a novel setting and underlying concept.

In other words, I'm madly playing with the dial that sets between familiarity and novelty.

This is a fairly frequent topic of my inner musings, but I want to thank naominovik for giving me a great book to read, and making me mull over this once more. I'm ordering the rest of the Temeraire books from Powell's today, if that gives you any clue as to my bottom line reaction.
Tags: books, mainspring, process, publishing, reviews, trial, writing

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