The matter of (literary) style

Over on “What are you reading,” Name1ess wrote,

If I had to give an over simplistic answer it would be that while Vinge has written at least two of my top 10 sf books (Marooned in Realtime and A Fire Upon the Deep) he never started one with a sentence like ‘The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel…’

On one hand, I have to say that I do care about style. I picked up S.M. Stirling’s Under the Yoke because I liked the variety of English his Draka characters spoke; on the other hand, I read the first page and a half of Yoon Ha Lee’s first novel online and hit the back arrow in disgust because of the ugly prose and the insensitivity to language it showed.

But on the other hand, I somewhat feel that a writer who has a prose style, and shows it off, ought to be stopped from writing till they have something to say with it. I can’t endure Ray Bradbury, for example, and it has long struck me as revealing that journalists who want a Big Three of science fiction refer (or used to) to Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke, whereas actual science fiction readers would have said Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. I don’t think Gibson is that bad, but if we’re going for opening sentences I’ll take the one by Heinlein that Samuel Delaney offers as quintessentially SFnal: The beginning of Beyond This Horizon, “The door dilated.”

I think what I really want in a writer is what Aristotle calls dianoia (usually translated as “theme”); I want lexis (“style”) to emerge organically from theme. The writers I really enjoy and come back to—Austen, Kipling, Tolkien, Rand, Heinlein, Sayers—are writers who have a strong focus on dianoia. Most of them also have style (I’m not going to put Rand forward as an exemplar of good prose!), but their style isn’t frosting on top of the cake; it’s baked into the cake. And that applies to the recent writers I both like reading and respect aesthetically, such as Kingsbury, Vinge, and Walton. Without that, I’m more likely to find “style” an irritant.


I think you’re going to have a hard time defining “actual science fiction readers” there. I love sci-fi, and read a lot of it, but if I don’t choose those three, am I not a proper sci-fi reader?

It’s all horses for courses though, as everyone knows, not everyone likes the same things. If someone else said “I can’t stand Under The Yoke because of the style of language in it”, that’s just personal opinion, in the same way you like it.

Beauty, in anything, is in the eye of the beholder. And it’s always worth giving people a second chance too. I didn’t get on with Snow Crash at all, but if I hadn’t given the author another chance I’d have missed out on Cryptonomicon, which I love. That’s just my opinion anyway :slight_smile:


On one hand, it was exactly my own personal tastes that I was talking about. Everything I had to say was first person statements: this is what I do or don’t like, this is what I think is a pattern in what I do or don’t like, and so on.

But on the other hand, I don’t think that it’s all just personal opinion. I’ve thought for many years that both “I don’t claim this is good art, but I like it” and “I don’t like this, but I see that it’s good art” are meaningful and valid statements. And I think there is such a thing as objective aesthetic merit. That’s why I ended by referring to “the recent writers I both like reading and respect aesthetically.”

But what I was talking about here was personal opinion, and not claimed to be anything else.

Addendum: As for the line you took off from, I wasn’t offering “likes ACH” as a definition of “actual science fiction readers” but as an observation about people I recognized as being in that category on other grounds. I became aware both of science fiction fandom as a community and of critical writings about science fiction by people who spoke as members of that community back in the 1970s and 1980s—for example, James Blish or Damon Knight—and those are the names that came up over and over as the major figures. Bradbury was certainly read, but he wasn’t named with the big three.

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I’m a sci-fi writer (4 self-published novels). So I am commenting from that perspective primarily. I’m also taking a university course at this moment specifically about sci-fi (Wilfrid Laurier University’s “EN-281-y Contemporary Science Fiction”), so maybe I’ll have more to add to this conversation as the weeks continue, but here is my current stance.

From what I can tell, you’re discussing the differences between story and narrative, to some extent (story being “what happens”, and narrative being “everything that happens, how it is told, and the elements in the work that allow the story to be told”). Story says that Case hooks up with a street samurai, goes to an orbital casino, and probably dooms mankind. Narrative says that Case is a picaro (such a sexist literary element, but whatever) in a picaresque, the narration is 3rd person limited, Wintermute speaks in normal font but Neuromancer speaks in italics, etc… etc… etc…

Style is an extremely nebulous thing: a lot of beginning writers claim that a specific element of their work is “style” when in reality it’s laziness, or inaccuracies, or misunderstood elements (one element of my “style” for many, many years was a use of ‘…’ at the end of sentences, and sentence fragments overall. Both are still occasional elements in my work, but I am much more conscious of those now).

Now, that stated, there are a lot of sci-fi writers I dislike because they have great stories and horrible narratives. Asimov is always my go-to for this: he imagines fantastic, fascinating universes and then tells that story like you’re reading a phone book. It’s dry, it’s very heavy on the “science”, and the story and pacing often suffer as a result. One of the reasons I usually like “soft” sci-fi (that is sci-fi that doesn’t adhere to the “golden ratio of science fiction” that dictates the amount of science included in the story, as outlined by Asimov) is because it lets authors focus more on telling a really good story, rather than having to prove they’re scientifically literate enough to justify the story.

A quick example: Iain M. Banks (although I hate his endings) tells a great set of stories in “Player of Games” or “Weapons of War”, but I found “The Algebraist” to be extremely boring because he spent way more time on the mathematics, gravitational science, and technology in that universe than he does in his other (better) sci-fi stories.

Anyway. My go-to sci-fi authors tend to craft great universes AND tell really interesting stories (Kowal, Scalzi, Stephenson, Brin), rather than beating you over the head with how smart they are (Weir, Asimov, Niven, Heinlein). Which isn’t to say I don’t think really smart authors can’t tell good stories, but it is to say that authors concerned with showing off their smarts tend to not be great storytellers (in my opinion, your mileage may heavily vary).


Well, let’s stay to a start that our tastes in writers don’t agree very much. I have read two Banks novels (Matter and The Hydrogen Sonata), and both of them left me asking myself, Why did I spend several hours reading this? (I consider his claim to portray “post-scarcity” societies specious and in fact unphysical, and his Minds are just repulsive.) I do like Stephenson a lot (at least from The Diamond Age through Anathem), though I don’t know why you do, as he’s well known for dumping masses of research findings on his readers, which I would think is exactly what you call “beating you over the head with how smart they are.” I like some of Brin. I read one and one-half Scalzi novels and gave up (a friend told me that his military SF was “like Starship Troopers without the lectures on philosophy,” but while that’s not my favorite Heinlein by a long way, I think it was the philosophy that I liked in it!), and I gave up on Kowal in a few chapters (she had people talking about EMP in the 1940s, and it wasn’t even discussed until much later, and I don’t really believe her portrayal of relations between men and women in that era, either). On the other hand, I think that Heinlein was a very conscious and self-aware stylist (I’ve read his letters to Niven and Pournelle about what was wrong with the first draft of The Mote in God’s Eye, which display a keen eye for linguistic nuances) and I also find his stories really interesting and often moving, not to mention cleverly constructed. (Consider, for example, that the real hero of Tunnel in the Sky is not the viewpoint character, but an apparently secondary character whom the viewpoint character detests for a large part of the narrative.)

What you call “story” looks like what I would call “plot,” somtimes summarized as “what is the story about?” But what I’m talking about is more “theme,” or “what is the PLOT about?” For example, the plot of The Time Machine is an inventor travelling into the remote future of humanity and the Earth and having encounters with humanity’s descendents, but the theme is the significance of Darwinism for the human species (particularly the absence of an immutable essence of humanity) and, at an even more basic level, time and mortality. I want a story to have a theme, to take that theme seriously, and to have every line of the prose be there because the theme requires it. And the prose that really compels me is the prose where a theme that resonates with me reaches out and grabs me.

So, to give you an example from a writer who isn’t a favorite of mine, I lately reread C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, and having read and enjoyed Planet Narnia (a critical study of Lewis’s use of medieval astrology), I was paying close attention to the start of the climax, when the intelligences of the planets descend to Earth, and Lewis describes each of them. Venus, of course, is Love, but Lewis goes on to identify Love as Charity, and to say that she is “ready to die, ready to kill.” And that just blew me away, because it’s such a brilliantly exact statement of the most intense form of love, and so perfectly succinct. The German word for writing poetry is dichten, etymologically “to condense” or “to make thick,” and what I admire is style where a few words convey multiple layers of meaning, and ornamentation is superfluous.

And I like science fiction because theme, or conceptual content, is central to it.

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And since my literary art is game mastering (a form of storytelling where you have several co-authors!), let me tell you about the single moment I’m happiest with in my past career as a GM:

I was co-GMing a campaign called “DC Realtime,” whose premise was that the DC universe had evolved as a single timeline where every character had their beginning on the date of first publication and aged naturally since then (with an honorable exception for the Legion of Super-Heroes, whose beginning was a thousand years in the future from their first appearance!). This was set in the late 1990s, so we told our players that Batman had died, Superman had some distinguished gray at the temples, and Wonder Woman was still young and beautiful . . .

So I decided to run the classic “amnesic superheroes trapped in a confined environment” story, using White Wolf’s Midnight Circus book and turning the player characters into circus personnel, until Batman (who had been missed) went in and catalyzed their escape. The sourcebook talked about a Veil of Delirium that hid the circus’s supernatural nature from mundanes. But one of the PCs had an origin tied up with the Endless. So he went into the Dreaming and asked Dream for advice on the veil, thinking it was too powerful for the mortal world. Dream called on Delirium, who came back with him.

Then I described to the players her taking a look, and saying, “You found it! I didn’t even know I lost it!” And she reached out for it—and her eyes became the same color again, because Delight had come back to the universe. And the players were totally silent for a full minute . . .

There’s no applause to equal that.

But that’s what I have in mind when I talk about condensation as an aesthetic principle. At least once in my life I achieved it, for that particular audience.

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