I miss Arthur C. Clarke. When I was a kid, I wrote him a letter in pencil on notebook paper, asking him to explain to me what a ‘tesseract’ was, since I’d seen it in A Wrinkle In Time and was lost on what was going on. When my dad found out my desired pen pal lived in Sri Lanka, he told me he’d “look into it”, which of course meant exactly what you think it meant. So my letter went nowhere. Anyway, the reason I loved the guy so much is that his books inspired me. It got me thinking recently when I was trying to recreate that feeling with another book what it was he did right that Larry Niven did so wrong. Basically, what makes a book inspiring?
Rendezvous With Rama is an Arthur Clarke book, and an absolute classic. I won’t go into it because it isn’t the real point here; but the idea is a mysterious spacecraft comes flying in, gets boarded by some intrepid folks, and unfolds in the warmth of our sun internally as the most well-designed engineering marvel you could imagine. A sense of wonder infuses that book that feels like a crackling fire to me. I was thinking about it recently and looked into the sequels. An overwhelming tidal wave of reviews indicate I’d better avoid them for various reasons. I found it interesting reading through the reviews that so many people appreciated the original for the same reasons I did. It made them either dream of joining those explorers on the spacecraft or of writing something as interesting as Sir Clarke had. Get that part – people like me are inspired by this book because of how it launches our imagination into ways we could engage with its ideas.
In my day job, I study and manipulate what engages people; and the overriding principle is always self-interest. We probably won’t stop to look over the charts on the wall the boss keeps posting unless there are pictures there of my friends up there or something showing me how close I might be to getting a bonus…that sort of thing. Self-interest. With our fiction, we want to relate to the characters in some way:
-For a horror novel or a thriller, you’re probably second-guessing every decision the characters make to decide what you’d do
-For a science fiction book like this one, you’re probably dreaming about how cool it would be to be doing those things
So I had a copy of Larry Niven’s Ringworld for some reason, and took it on a plane to try and recreate that sense of wonder and awe from Clarke’s book. Should have been a slam dunk: a massive ring-shaped partial dyson sphere constructed around an alien world gets explored in all its wonder. How can you screw that up? I’m sorry if you love this book, let’s keep in mind that fiction is subjective; but it’s just awful.
I groaned every time he used ‘tanj’ as fake profanity. There’s no way to tell which character is speaking without labels because everyone from furry warrior-aliens to 200yr old earthlings to multi-headed pacifist-aliens all speak exactly like Larry Niven does…like an old white physicist. They stand around philosophizing about the math behind how dense something must be or how the orbit would be affected…blah blah blah. Oh my God. I put it down multiple times, slugging to finish hoping something would redeem it. No idea how it ended because I just yielded. Whatever. It’s an award winner and always makes the big lists though. Somehow I’m missing it.
So here’s the point: if we’re writing something we really want to make inspiring….something for the ages that will stoke people’s imaginations or really change the way they look at the world (and what wordslinger doesn’t want that?!), then keep things simple and avoid whatever will distract from the feeling you’re trying to engender. In Niven’s case, he spent way too much time trying to make his cardboard lame characters interesting and introducing some ridiculous side-story about breeding luck, when the sales pitch for the book is an incredible sense of wonder and exploration of the Ringworld.
In whatever you’re writing now, or what you expect to write next, think about the feeling you want left behind when the reader is done…boil away everything that doesn’t produce that…and focus.