Sour Fiction

About twenty years ago, my dad visited me for a week or two, and he had the time to go through some of the books on my shelves. Now, I’m proud of some of those books, and rather ashamed of others, and what he picked to read was probably the worst title possible, one of the few books that I’ve been tempted to throw away or maybe burn, the simply overwhelmingly and hopelessly bad Elron’s Battlefield Earth.

I don’t think dad ever understood why I read science fiction, and this certainly didn’t help. “It wasn’t very good,” was all he said. While I don’t know that he simultaneously assasinated all the other SF on my shelves by simple association or proximity, I have no doubt that his lack of understanding was not helped by this gobbler.

There are a few other books that I’ve variously tossed out, or should have (I’ve kept Battlefield Earth around as a kind of cautionary tale — in the unlikely event that I ever attempt to pen any SF myself, and it reads like Elron’s gold-standard literary puke, I’ll know to quit). These books include The Playmasters (thirty pages in, wanted to vomit and I’m not kidding), the first volume of the Left Behind series, and some amazingly awful stuff about giant flying telepathic spiders, I swear to God.

You can take one of the best writers in the business, plonk a deadline in front of them and say, “A hundred twenty thousand words by December, or you don’t eat,” and watch the drivel flow. SF doesn’t have any particular handle on this kind of thing, but it does have an audience that is more tolerant than most. “Pandas that fly pirate spaceships and quote Trotsky, okay, I’ll accept that. Will there be a sequel?” You could say that it’s our own damned fault.

The tragedies are books that start out with great promise but for some reason run out of steam and don’t deliver. John Varley’s The Ophiucci Hotline is one of these, as is Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac. Both authors start with great characters, wonderfully imagined settings, invest lots of inventive writing and lively action, and then blow out an ending quicker than you can say “Christ, it’s due at the publisher Tuesday,” leaving you with a hollow, ripped-off feeling. It’s not the cover price, you understand — I’ve read enough crappy stuff, and enjoyed it — it’s the poor author’s investment which is the true tragedy.

Some authors (David Gerrold, most notably) like to go back to their older works and do significant re-work; I’d love it if Varley and Stephenson and unnamed others would return to their early books and apply some patches, given the skills that they have developed in subsequent years. While this feels like cheating, who’s to say that it’s not all right? I mean, the software industry rarely gets it right with the first version of something, so why should an artist?

There are the authors who desperately need help from Reader’s Digest; I would (for instance) read an abridged version of the Wheel of Time (which would probably be about as exciting as reading a play-by-play of a Little League baseball game, but shorter, for sure). Similar help could be had for Stephen Donaldson (my Lord Foul’s Bane survival reading tip: Read the first and last pages of each chapter, and if it doesn’t make any sense, don’t worry because reading the middle parts won’t make any difference).

I heard a rumor that Elron followers were buying copies of Battlefield Earth and shuttling them back to the publisher’s house to be sold over and over. I guess that’s one way to write a best-seller….

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