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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2007-08-17 06:12
Subject: [process] Extracting the denominator - novelty vs familiarity
Security: Public
Tags:books, mainspring, process, publishing, reviews, trial, writing
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.
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Paul Weimer: Books Books Books
User: princejvstin
Date: 2007-08-17 14:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Books Books Books
I wondered about that, sometime after I read it.

History didn't seem to have been changed all that much for having dragons around all this time. While I did catch an implication that until recently they weren't large enough to cause a divergence, I wasn't sure I bought it.

It will be clear though, that history is definitely being affected by their presence now, and not just in the Napoleonic conflicts (to say more would spoil books two and three). I *expect* history to continue to evolve.

I still need to pick up and read Mainspring. I think my gigantic backlog of books is inhibiting me from making the purchase.



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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-17 14:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, the first book hints at variations of history. There are Incan dragons, which implies a very different order in the New World. However, if that order is *too* different, it upsets the balance of power in Europe -- the economies and military relationships of the Great Powers of that era had a very strong relationship to their overseas colonies and trade routes.

Also, the Chinese are implied to be disproportionately powerful to historical reality of the time.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-17 15:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You are approaching it rigorously. Mainspring is basically a giant steaming pile of handwaving, looked at from a strict alternate history perspective.

Rigorous alt.hist is possible -- I've done it in a few short stories, and other authors do it more ambitiously -- but the kind of detail and accuracy you're concerned with is an end in itself.

Have you ever read For Want of a Nail by Robert Sobel? it's essentially a fake *textbook* from an alternate history version of post-Columbian North American history.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-17 16:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I remember that!
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josh*
User: onefishonly
Date: 2007-08-17 14:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I read only the first book, and read it a little while ago, so I don't remember it perfectly. But just today I was starting the second book, so they're on my mind - and one point I'd make about the deus ex machina is that, in some ways, in a series work (or at least in this work), character development/backstory revelation is just as satisfying to me as character cleverness. I now know more about these characters than I did before - and I expect this to be relevant in the future of the series. There will just be more and more interesting stuff. And there were plenty of hard choices and such leading up to the climax. Foreshadowing what did happen too much might have robbed it of its power of surprise - though actually, if I recall correctly, there may have even been some foreshadowing, if not of specifics, at least that there was something still unknown about the character in question.

The clever twists on familiar history are so much more fun to me than a totally reimagined and unfamiliar DragonPlanet would have been that I more than forgive any reluctance to engage too seriously with What Would Really Have Happened. And as you recognize, there are suggestions that some things have played or are playing out differently - though they started from familiar cultural origins. (It did seem clear that dragons have not been widely "domesticated" for long enough that Novik's recognizable world is totally unacceptable to readerly suspension of disbelief.)

I am a novelty seeker, too - I love Mieville and The Etched City (and Infinite Jest and The Sparrow and Cryptonomicon and, heck, Moby Dick, for that matter...). But there are different sorts of novelty, and the new spin on familiar elements - when done with joy, excitement, cleverness, and engaging writing - certainly works for me. It may not make Temeraire a landmark work - but worth reading? Yes, indeed.
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User: dsgood
Date: 2007-08-17 15:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I suspect LJer naominovik might be interested in this.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-17 16:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I dropped her a note...
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2007-08-17 15:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
My fiance got hung up on the notion that nobody thought of using dragons for mass troop transport before then, and kept comparing it to the advent of aviation in more recent times. I see his point, but I also suggested to him that Novik was riffing on a historical quote following Trafalgar, regarding Napoleon invading Britain: "I do not say he cannot come, but he cannot come by sea."

Personally? I'll forgive the characters not thinking of that use of dragons, in exchange for a fun historical twist like that.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-17 15:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What I get hung up on when I try to take it literally is the effect aerial scouting would have had on deep water navigation. I mean, forget warfare, the development of trade and exploration would have been radically different from the earliest days of flight, if flight had been available to the Phoenicians, for example.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2007-08-17 16:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
It all loops back around to the issue that if the change in history isn't a specific event -- the South won the Civil War, frex -- but rather a difference in the nature of the world, then a truly rigorous working-out of the consequences might as well be a different world with the same landmasses (and maybe not even those). Which then offers a very different sort of appeal than the sort that starts with a premise like "the Napoleonic War with dragons." That latter sort requires recognizable Englands and Frances and the like.

I'm willing to let the other sort of world-building go. What I love are the cultural differences in how dragons are treated, and the ways in which dragons do or do not fit into human culture. The fourth book is called Empire of Ivory, which suggests all kinds of delicious setting possibilities to me, and I want to know more about those Incan dragons. I'm really more of an anthropologist than a historian.
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manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2007-08-17 16:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Darn it Jay, this is where you're gonna get me into trouble.

Let me start by saying that I've read His Majesty's Dragon (AKA Temeraire as it is in the UK) and really enjoyed it. I've just bought the second book in the series and lent the first to my best friend. The only thing he's ever read is Harry Potter, but he loves dragons, so the act of lending him the book is one of belief in the author.

However, I've also read The Lies of Locke Lamorra by Scott Lynch. Also a great book, but in my opinion the quality of Lynch's writing is much better than Novik's. That's not saying Novik is bad... far from it, if I could write as well as her I'd give limbs (maybe even some of my own)... but I just think that Lynch is a more accomplished wordsmith.

And here's where I'm gonna get myself into trouble, I see in the Worldcon ballots that both Lynch and Novik are up for the Campbell. I have no issues with either of them being there, both are great new writers. BUT, and here's the clincher, in the best Novel Hugo category I see His Majesty's Dragon and not The Lies of Locke Lamorra, and for me that seems odd.

Was Lies not eligible, or is the general consensus that His Majesty's Dragon was a better novel? Let me stress, if I had my way, both novels would be up there, I just think Lies is a better novel between the two. I'm not looking to disagree with anyone's opinion (or dis either writer)(or start a Lynch Vs Novik cage fight), just as someone who is working on their craft to try and get to a level that maybe they could be capable of winning a Hugo one day, I'd like to understand the reasoning (if indeed there is any) of why His Majesty's Dragon is considered a better novel.

Now hopefully I've managed to say that without offending anyone or sounding like an ass!
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Menolly
User: nolly
Date: 2007-08-17 17:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Novik got more buzz. I don't know why, but I do know that this comment is the first time I recall hearing of Lynch or The Lies of Locke Lamorra, whereas much of my flist was talking about Novik last year, which is why I've read those.

Also, the Lynch is the beginning of a series, and appears to have been initially published in hardcover. Many readers aren't going to drop the price of a hardback on an unknown author, with many books left to come, and no guarantee they'll actually all happen. (The first is in PB now, and the second is out, but that wasn't true when the Hugo nominations were happening, as far as I can tell.) While the Novik is also the beginning of a series, the first three were available in paperback all at once -- lower initial cost, and a guarantee that there's more where the first one came from.

So Novik has been more widely read, due to more buzz, due probably in part ot cheaper books. The Hugos aren't a popularity contest, but if not enough people read a book, even if every one of them nominates it, it can't make the ballot or win. (I am firmly convinced that this is why Perdido Street Station didn't win -- not enough voters read it.)
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manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2007-08-17 22:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you for your insight. A lot of points I had not considered
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Elaine Brennan
User: elaine_brennan
Date: 2007-08-17 18:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
And all three of Novik's books were out last year before Lies of Locke Lamorra was published. That gave her stuff a bit more traction.

It will be interesting to see the full statistical report on the Hugos after the ceremony -- that's where you can see how the nominations totaled up for various works.
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manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2007-08-17 22:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks, between you and nolly I have new insight
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User: ianrandalstrock
Date: 2007-08-17 19:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hmm, an interesting take on the book. Unlike you, I haven't read very much in this genre (no Obrian [sp?], only the first three Pern book [the SFBC omnibus edition], and I don't read terribly much fantasy). With those caveats, I read the first book and was quite taken with the world and the setting. I understood that we weren't seeing a terribly different world, but I chalked that up (when I was reading it) to the somewhat-limited viewpoint of the characters.

As a writer, I assumed it was because there are only so many changes you can take into account when writing alternate history before the world becomes completely unrecognizable and you lose the story. F'rinstance, Bradbury "A Sound of Thunder" (just re-read it): step off the path, kill a butterfly 65 million years ago, and English spelling is slightly modified, and the other guy wins the presidential election... but that means almost nothing was changed (if it could enable the same two candidates to show up in the same election). You have to choose which changes to introduce and which to ignore.

And in the "we need more change" camp, I might point you at the series as a whole. I started recognizing more changes in book 4 (review on this page), as the world/scope expanded. But I know, I hate that argument, too. When I read the first Harry Potter book (late to the game), I couldn't understand why everyone was raving about it. Most of them told me "you have to read them all; it gets better," to which I responded, "why did anyone read #2 if you have to go that far for it to get good?" Similar concept here, I guess. I'm still trying to figure out why it works that way, and yet enough people read far enough for the series to "get good."
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lt260
User: lt260
Date: 2007-08-20 02:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Just a snippet to let people know that Ms Novik will be joining Dan Simmons and Ciruelo as a GoH for Norwescon 31 next April.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-20 02:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oh, excellent!
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