In a conversation I am having at File 770, I was asked to define what makes a science fiction/fantasy book "great" for me. Rather than losing these radiant pearls of wisdom to the effluence of teh intertoobery, I thought I would cement them here in my personal record.
As this is the season of Hugo 2016, there will be some references to the current finalists for Best Novel as well as others from the recent past.
[In looking at my examples, it might appear that I am unfairly focused on N.K. Jemisin's work. I am not.
I just finished her book "The Fifth Season" as part of my reading for the Hugo awards and thus it is simply the most current example with which people may be familiar. I enjoyed that book a great deal. I'm glad that I bought it. I wish her every success in the future. She has some work to do before her work should be considered the best of the best, IMHO. added afterwards - ed.]
You may find the following links to other blog entries to be useful as well.
I Have Already Read Something Better
Naming the Names (books that were not as good as those in the first link, IMHO)
I know that the following is numbered. Don't think of them as being particularly prioritized in that order.
1. It Works For Me
Every book has a certain un-quantifiable factor, a je ne sais quoi if you will permit, that engages the reader in a unique, ethereal bond of the soul. What moves me at my deepest core (or in the case of MilSF, my corps) may not be nearly as impressive for another individual.
Another person who does not enjoy a of similarly satisfying experience with a given book is not defective. They might well be defective, but that difference of opinion about a book isn't enough to define the defect. The same works in the other direction as well, or at least it should.
But that isn't really very definitive, so perhaps we should look at factors that are more je sais quoi instead.
2. Take Me Some Place New
We have all ready books about elves and dwarves and tentacled gods from other dimensions and interstellar navies and armored soldiers. There are a couple thousand new books in the genre being published each year. Coming up with something genuinely new is pretty hard. So make it a new twist on an old trope. Or use a different configuration of old tropes. Just do not follow the herd.
Just imagine how many fewer sparkly vampire novels we would have if more writers followed that sage advice.
3. Focus On Interesting Characters
I'm not terribly interested in what characters look like. Get them dressed/undressed as the story demands and we can move on. What is interesting are the motivations and actions of those characters as they unfold in the story.
This is where "The Goblin Emperor" fell down just a bit for me. There was an awful lot of focus jewelry and other adornments that
had did not do much for me in terms of character/plot development. Some of that activity was certainly required to tell the story, but at some point it detracted from my experience with the book.
4. Value Humanity/Value The Individual
This is where I think Robert Heinlein shined. He put the focus on valuing the individual rather than talking about groups.
N.K. Jemisin's "The Fifth Season" was a very enjoyable read. But I have already read something better....link above. One area where her book
feel fell short for me was the emphasis on class/caste structures. Very few had problems with class/caste structures existing. The ones we followed had more of a problem with the way those structures were being administered.
There was also a minor theme where the refugees/pirates had some sort of communal lifestyle where all cooking was done daily by one smaller group for the larger group. They were detailed (in a manner akin to a command economy) to that task. Child care was also communal. And I mention "pirates" as that is precisely what they were; remorselessly stealing the wealth produced by others.
"Socialism" is truly the economic system of fantasy writing as fantasy literature is the only place where it can produce desirable results. When socialism stops being evil in reality, then I'll adopt a different attitude towards socialism in fiction.
4. Be Tied To Reality In Some Way
SF/F stretches the boundaries of human conception for the purpose of giving us new ways of thinking about old issues. That is a property that makes the genre so influential and satisfying. However, there should always be some useful connection between the fictional characters/story and real human interactions.
Jim Butcher's "The Aeronaut's Windlass" did a very credible job of using the unusual circumstances of his imagined world to talk about a bit about race/class issues. He did so in a way that didn't beat the reader over the head. He was also able to create feelings of empathy for both of the military groups present within the story. At the very least, you could understand/appreciate some of the motivations of the "bad guys" group even if you disagreed with the actions they ended up taking.
Naomi Novik's "Uprooted" accomplished much the same thing towards the end when you got a chance to examine the experiences of the "evil" forest from their perspective.
5. Show A Sense Of Humor...or Humour
Give me a reason to smile. Even in the grim darkiest of the grim dark sub-genre there are examples of humor used to help lighten the mood. Humor also serves to provide a contrast that highlights the more serious events experienced by the characters.
Joe Ambercrombie's "The First Law" trilogy contains characters that use a fair amount of humor....typically gallows humor....to help them get through the challenges in their lives. Sebastien de Castell's deft use of humor in his "Greatcoats" series provides such a tremendous contrast that his books had me in tears over the breaking of his characters.
N.K. Jemisin's "The Fifth Season" lacked an appreciable amount of humor and as a result my experience suffered.
6. Show Don't Tell
SF/F works traditionally involve a fair amount of info dumping. Topics ranging from orbital mechanics to computer based intelligence to sword play to the function of gemstones as a power source are generally beyond the daily experience of the average reader. So the author has to draw the reader into their fictional world by describing what makes that world work.
One way of describing that fictional world is to dump pages and pages of dry dissertation, treatise, and exposition on the reader. Erg.
Another method is to have one of the characters experience the limitations of the fictional world as a way of giving the reader a window into those limitations.
I have generally shied away from the steampunk genre precisely because they involve a fair amount of info dumping. That process has generally been along the lines of "Look! Gemstones! Chemicals! Miraculous hand-waving! Stuff happens!" Given how well I can suspend disbelief for tales involving magic, you would think that I could get past that sort of hand-waving. Alas no. So I haven't delved deeply into that sub-genre.
This year's Hugo nominee, "The Aeronaut's Windlass" by Jim Butcher, involves some heavy steampunk elements. But he limited the info dumping and had most of it occur in conjunction with events experienced by his characters. He did a good job of making his steampunk elements seem credible and translating them to the reader in a convincing manner.
Another Hugo nominee that has thus far (I'm still reading it) done a credible job with info dumping is Neal Stephenson's "Seveneves".
In comparison with those two novels, Ms. Jemisin's "The Fifth Season" made greater use of the dry expository passage approach.
7. Stay Away From Check Boxes
Whoo boy. I can smell trouble burning at the other end of the wire already.
"Check box" fiction really undermines the quality of my reading experience. What is "check box" fiction? It is a story that includes elements indicating diversity in the cast of characters that has zero impact on the the story.
In a reverse of the above, I'd like to suggest N.K. Jemisin's "The Fifth Season" as a good example of not doing "check box" fiction. One cluster of protagonists included a character that is straight, one that is seemingly bi-sexual, and one that is decidedly homosexual. They have a three-way.
And while the more patently descriptive passages of those events didn't do much for me, the fact that their respective sexuality helped inform their motivations and moved the story forward made the effort in describing their sexuality worthwhile reading. She also did a reasonable job at expressing how physical appearances differed based on regionalism. [There were one or two other moments that could be considered "check box(es)", but for the most part it wasn't a factor in this book.]
IMHO, including a character that is "different" without having that difference impact the story is at the very least a waste of time that detracts from the story and at the very worst insultingly dismissive of the people that possess the same
Unfortunately, there has been a developing trend where authors appear to think that including such elements is the same thing as quality story-telling. Water is still wet. People still exist in a multiplicity of skin tones and gender identities. If they story takes place in the desert, then we should probably be focused on something other than how wet water can be.
And yes, I realize that the absence of water spoils the analogy. Work with me on this.
8. Tell A Good Story
That heading seems about as nebulous as the first one, no? But it isn't.
A lot of writers have "big ideas" about "meaningful stories". Which is fine.
Don't let those big ideas get in the way of good story-telling. Given the option of reading an engaging story without deep meaning or an OK story with deep meaning, I'd rather read the engaging story.
The Dragonlance series written/shepherded by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman includes good examples of good story-telling. Some of those stories had some sub-textual themes. Mostly they were just entertaining.
And I loved almost every book from that fictional world that I read. In fact I would take "Dragons of Winter Night" and/or "Dragons of Spring Dawning" over Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game" precisely because they are better told stories. (I haven't read all of the books from the Dragonlance 'verse, but of those that I did read, the stinkers were few and far between.)
Tell a good story. Make the characters interesting. Make the factors of their personality matter to the story. Let the characters experience the world instead of dropping endless pages of exposition. Don't add characterizations if those characterizations do not have an impact on the story arc. Have a sense of humor. Place a high value on individuals. Have a tie to reality so that the story is relevant outside of itself.
Do this and I will enjoy your book. Do it not and I probably will not.
Pardon me whilst I don my asbestos Underoos.....