Author ex machina

I recently read a dystopian novel. (Who hasn’t, right?) While I thought the characters were terrific and the emotional core of the story very satisfying, some of the plot and dystopic elements were equally disappointing, often because they were contradictory or way too convenient. A crucial plot point depended on the characters’ abilities to create something that was almost dismissively easy for them to create. But wait — if the good guys can do this, what’s to stop everybody from doing it? And why haven’t some of those everybodies done it before now?

The only answer seemed to be, “Nothing, but then it wouldn’t be a dystopia any more.” There were other contradictions in the world-building, some of which had more impact on the plot than others, but all of which weakened it for me. I liked the book, but I was disappointed. I find it hard to believe that an agent or editor didn’t raise the same concerns and ask the author to fix them.

And yet… I’ve only seen a few reviews of this book, but none of them seem to care that the more technical or societal aspects of the book are weak at best. Which makes me wonder if I am the only one who cares about plausibility and the technical matters that make me believe anything the author says… or not. I have to admit, this is not the first spec fic book I’ve read in the past few years that I had similar trouble with, but that seemed to do well among other readers.

Thus my question: Is the character/emotional story more important to you than plot plausibility, world-building, or the trust you can place in the author?

— Joni, who wants to care as much about the ideas in a book as its characters

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9 responses to “Author ex machina

  1. Parker Peevyhouse

    I’d like the storyworld to be at least logical, even if it’s not rich in technical detail.

    In the recent movie Inception, they never attempted to explain how a machine helped them invade a person’s dreams, but at least they used the machine consistently and followed the rules they’d set up for themselves.

    But all of that character building tends to be useless to me once I stop believing in their world.

    • One thing Inception had going for it was that you were kept so busy thinking about what was going on, and remembering what was real or various levels of dream, that you almost didn’t have time to think about any inconsistencies or faults in logic. The machine being a bit hokey did not even occur to me at the time, but yeah… you have a point. :)

  2. This topic comes up often at SF/F conventions, mostly because if the reader can’t believe in your world, or your magic system is inconsistent, it makes your story cheap and unbelievable no matter how cool your characters are. And in SF/F, believability is crucial.

    The latest Star Trek blew it for me big time with red matter. Totally stupid plot device that was completely unbelievable. I still enjoyed the movie, but only because I’m a Trekkie. Is it a great movie? No. Plot holes big enough to fly a starship through leave me wanting a better story.

    For me, the story has to have internal consistency. I don’t care how far-fetched it may be as long as it is self-consistent, I can believe in the world.

    • Ha! Red matter? Obviously I paid no attention to that at all, since I don’t even remember the reference. (But I’m a trekkie, too, so I was probably too swept up in other stuff I liked.)

  3. I am totally with you on the issue of credibility, Joni, which more than anything is the #1 reason (the lack of) why I’ll hurl a book across the room.

    I recognize the distinct issues when it comes to SF, where each world must have a cohesive internal logic even if magical things are possible. But it’s not limited to SF. What’s true for good writing goes across all genre.

    For example, I’ve written realistic fiction that linked closely to bullying and baseball. It mattered to me, very much, that I got those details right. It needed to ring true at every turn. For me, that’s a top priority. And yet I’ve read many books where I’ll stop and think, “No, that’s not how it works.” And at that point, as a reader, you’ve lost me because — and this is the main point, I think — it’s no longer true.

    The scariest thought, the one that nags me, is that maybe there’s a sense in children’s books of, “Oh, it’s only a kid’s book.” That somehow the review standards are not as high. Which is why I sometimes wish for more critical reviews (but never with my books — because I need unconditional love).

    • Good point, it really is a matter of author authority (hmm, never noticed that root word before) regardless of whether it’s spec fic or not.

      I’m not sure if anyone thinks, “it’s only a kid’s book” per se, but I know for a fact that some people think, “it’s only a book” (or movie) so it doesn’t need to be authentic. Or else “hardly anyone will know the difference anyway.” It does for me. (I grew up with my dad swearing at movies that got military stuff fake; that’s probably where I got it.) And I know it does for most readers of historical work (even historical fantasy), but I think plenty of readers don’t mind, as long as the story’s entertaining.

      And I’ll admit that there are times when I’m writing that I try to finagle my way around what works best for the story… as in, “it might not be common, and therefore readily plausible, but it’s at least possible…right?”

      • Daniel Pinkwater has a real gift for drawing you into his stories and making the totally unbelievable believable by the time you get to it. He writes SF aimed at 9 – 12 yo boys. Very funny stuff. But he starts out totally realistic and normal and by page 35 you’re on an intergalactic hitchhiking trip with a crazy old uncle in his old beat-up Chevy. And you believe it. I need to study his books some more to find out how he does it.

  4. This isn’t just a problem with dystopias but seems to strike them particularly hard.

  5. Good suggestion, Jaleta, thanks!

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