A few days ago I got the nicest surprise I’ve had for a while: I picked up my iphone for a quick email check, and sitting at the top of my inbox was a message from Hugh Howey – a response to my quick bit of fanmail sent after reading Wool.
I correspond with a number of self published authors, but this was the first time I’ve ever dropped a line to one who probably gets hundreds of letters from fans if not more, and got a reply thanking me for the praise. The note at the end of Wool that said ‘I try to respond to all emails’ was written years ago, and I expected that even the most dedicated of authors would struggle to keep to such an ideal once they’d reached Howey’s level of notoriety. In short, I was thrilled to receive a reply, and that an author now knows they inspired me.
So what has Hugh Howey inspired me to do? To cut a long story short, A LOT. I could probably sit here writing about this for hours and get high on motivation, but I’m going to make this an exercise in keeping things concise. Just for once.
Finish the damn book!
Finishing reading a series is hugely liberating when you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Silo. Not only do I now know how it ends, but I can keep asking myself the questions and remember my favourite bits and read about what other people think. Goodreads is like going to a bookclub when it comes to Silo, because there’s loads of conflicting opinion on it and loads to debate. And now that I’ve read that series, I can move onto reading something else! At last!
Anyone who’s never written a book, take this on faith: that feeling of achievement and liberation that comes with finishing a read is nowhere near as high on the pleasure scale as what you get from finishing a book of your own. Especially when like me you’re on your difficult second book, and it’s a sequel, and you’ve almost lost it and consigned it to the trash several times. I’ve just read something excellent, now I want something excellent of my own. It’s the ultimate chase. This is perhaps the biggest reason I write at all. I’m an achievement junky.
Some things in fiction don’t always make sense
What stood out about the Silo series to me is that I wanted to keep reading even though I didn’t always find myself believing in (1) the way certain characters behaved and (2) the whole setup behind them. Wool, Shift and Dust feature a number of scenarios that feel implausible. A couple are downright ridiculous. The one and two star reviews for these books often make fair points, but where I beg to differ (having awarded four, five and four to the books, in that order) is in thinking that how ‘possible’ and ‘believable’ were secondary concerns to me, because I was still interested in watching these characters get themselves out of their predicaments.
It was like watching a disaster movie sometimes: ‘It doesn’t matter that it wouldn’t happen, just run with it! See who gets out of it alive!’ Never mind that a situation like Operation Fifty of the World Order would probably never happen, and even if it did, it would most likely not be as straightforward to set up as [spoiler resisted here], and why do it in the first place instead of combating [another spoiler tag] in a different way? I just found myself thinking ‘This is what’s happening, in this crazy future world, so how are these guys going to deal with it? Who’s going to win? The people who set this up or the rebels?’
That’s a battle I’ve seen many times, but never quite how Howey chose to depict it. For all its flaws, Silo has a uniqueness about it that you don’t get in a series unless you as the author are prepared to take risks. My turn then, now I’m back at my computer and working on The Talent Show series again. Time to stop being so afraid of everything having to be perfect and believable for everyone. Because just like Silo, it won’t be.
Science fiction is all about suspending disbelief. If the ideas and situations were real, it would be science fact. For some readers, Hugh Howey’s efforts at suspending disbelief didn’t work, but in his defence, he’s written a highly readable trilogy despite the far fetched setup, and many of the questions that arise from believability or plausibility issues can be debated, using the books themselves. What some people consider to be plotholes or unanswered questions, I often considered to be left to reader interpretation.
Making sense of futuristic worlds is bloody hard work. Even when an author has gone out of their way to avoid plotholes and set-ups that don’t make sense, there will always be a reader who finds something to pick a hole in. A good beta reader or an honest friend can call you out on things that need improvement before your final draft hits the shelves, but even after all that revision, as soon as you put your work into the world, it’s destined for someone to criticise it. If you’re lucky, you might end up with such diverse reviews as Silo. And so many of them.
For the last eight months of working on Ghost of the Navigator I’ve been obsessed with making sure my setup works. Every time I think I’ve solved a problem relating to the infrastructure of my protagonist’s world in the 2300’s, I create another one. Just when I think I know everything about my Talent concept, or Dream Morphine or Nanonic Nerve Therapy (NNT) I realise I’ve made certain things happen that aren’t possible, or wouldn’t be necessary. There’s two hundred years worth of backstory since Earth hit ‘Hour Zero’ when its oil reserves ran out, and the deeper I go the less sense it seems to make.
Reading the Silo trilogy and looking at reader responses has been enough to make me stop worrying so much about everything making perfect sense. As long as it makes enough, it’s possible to get away with things being questionable. Real life doesn’t always make a lot of sense, for crying out loud! Human beings are a complex and contradictory species whose behaviours and social structures are anything but easy to explain. Why certain things happen the way they do is baffling. We look back at our history sometimes and struggle to completely explain why certain things happened the way they did, and why people couldn’t change the course of events. Why shouldn’t fiction be the same sometimes?
My readers, like Howey’s, will have a certain amount of tolerance for the things they criticise. They will concentrate on the things they like, and keep wanting to read to the end. I can try as hard as I like for total coherence and perfect damage limitation from criticism, but if I’m going to write complex futuristic fiction then I’m going to get it anyway. So I need to stop wanting to throw my efforts in the trash because my fictional world sometimes falls apart at the seams. I managed to sew it up enough times to get what eventually became Shadow’s Talent, after all.
Nanotechnology is fun…and dangerous
I can’t remember where I first heard of nanos, but I’ve become as taken with exploring their possibilities as I have with mind powers. Rather like reading Michael Patrick Hick’s excellent Convergence got me re-thinking how memories can be used in sci-fi, Hugh Howey got the wheels in my head turning about nanotechnology.
After coming up with the idea of Nanonic Nerve Therapy in Shadow’s Talent I then had to answer the question of why it wasn’t available on Earth yet. I’m so glad I read Shift, and it set me on a possible answer to why my own NNT might not be the miracle cure it appears to be when Shadow first hears about it. Nanos can be dangerous if certain things are done with them. Perhaps the Seekers keep them the hell away from Earth for its own good. Danger might as well be Shadow Hatcher’s middle name though. One way or another, he’s set on getting his hands (or rather his whole body) on these little micro motherfuckers…so what price is he going to end up paying this time?
No, my characters are not going to end up underground. My guys build colonies in space. No I haven’t just given you a major spoiler. Honest. One cripple with an increasingly angry voice and a few criminal connections is not going to end Earth. But he might change it slightly.
Look at what I criticised and ask ‘Could I really do any better?’
Yeah, that’s an obvious one. But any decent writer should do it. Enough said.
* * *
I think this is long enough now. I’ll save my review of Shift for another post later in the week.
One closing thought: it’s fun to pay homage to influences by dropping a reference into your fiction now and again. Silo Eighteen would be a good name for a bar. ‘The Order’ could happily head a drinks menu with fifty different cocktails on it.